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Nov 23, 2009

Apocalypse Now

The trouble with the 'clásico' (Barcelona v Real Madrid, in case you didn't know) is that in the week preceding this apocalyptic fixture everything seems conditioned by its looming presence. It might have been better for the clubs themselves to have played the game on a weekend which neither preceded nor succeeded a Champions League midweek, but the gods of destiny preferred to keep things boiling over, sitting up there in the clouds this summer, poring over the fixture list. As such, it's even managed to silence the Hand of Henry controversy, by far this past week's juiciest talking point.

• Saturday's round-up
• Sunday's round-up
• La Liga Gallery

Nevertheless, the weekend's action in La Liga seemed to have its every action subordinated by, or linked to, next weekend's game. Pep Guardiola came in for some criticism for even fielding Leo Messi in San Mamés on Saturday night, as if he should have been saved for the two subsequent games, which were deemed more important. The fact that he went off injured then became a talking point for next Sunday, particularly given the imminent return of Cristiano Ronaldo for the big event. Messi's injury (which has turned out to be not as serious as initially thought) was only a problem in terms of the clásico, not the next few games - not even the Inter match on Tuesday. Champions League? Who cares? Real Madrid visit on Sunday.

Well - I exaggerate. But you could have been spared the thought that Barcelona's season, which may well pivot on Tuesday's game, depended more on the clásico than on beating Inter - which is obviously untrue in concrete terms, but in psychological ones it makes sense. Real Madrid have found this particular incarnation of Barça rather hard to take, especially given the 2-6 defeat of last season, and would love to exact some sort of revenge, or at least wrest back some dignity. A good result in the Nou Camp - and a draw would constitute that - might begin to turn the tide that has so fervently washed the Catalans' away in the last year and a half.

The truth is that neither side are playing particularly well, going into the game. On Saturday morning, to boot, Spain woke up to the headlines that H1N1 had hit the Barça dressing-room, with Abidal and Touré its fallen victims. Marquez was soon to follow. You could almost see the headline writers at Marca rubbing their hands in glee, almost exhorting any undercover Madrid fan in Barcelona (with 'the flu') to break into the Nou Camp and sneeze. Then on Saturday night, Athletic Bilbao recovered remarkably from the first 20 minutes of a game in which Barça ran them dizzy, slowly turning the tables on the visitors and ending up looking almost the better side.

Messi limped off after a fantastic start, but then Xavi and Iniesta came in for some rough stuff, particularly from the hound from hell, Carlos Gurpegui. A few weeks ago, he wandered down the streets of Bilbao with my son and myself after midnight, chatting away as if he were the most mild-mannered man on the planet. On Saturday night, Barça must have wished he'd been elsewhere. At one point - dare to breathe the phrase - Gurpegui put Xavi so off his stride that he misplaced a pass to Iniesta, which rolled out of play. The world tilted on its axis, rivers dried up and the stock market fell. It was the first time that a Xavi pass had not hit a Barça player since 2006, or so the story goes. Is this the beginning of the end?

Dani Alves actually scored at a point when Barça were not playing particularly well, a fact that would have knocked the wind from most opponents' sails, but not Athletic's. Indeed, with reference to my friend Eduardo Alvarez' debut quiniela last Wednesday, this was a fixture where his prediction was spot-on, although Guardiola put out most of his big guns. Not so many were rested, as Eduardo predicted - but the result was right. Rather better than the total - five out of 10, but we'll forgive him the first time. Definite room for improvement. Glancing at my own attempt, I managed six, but blew three of the five second division games. Ho hum, work another week, as my father used to say. Whatever, it will be interesting to see what is predicted for the clásico. It would take a brave person to predict a Madrid win, but such an outcome would truly put the cat amongst the proverbials.

It seems unlikely because Real Madrid are playing so poorly, and yet a haul of 28 points from a possible 33 represents their best start in 17 years. Then again, one might argue that they are only playing poorly in relation to the expectation generated around them pre-season, and the Alcorconazo, as the famous defeat to the minnows has been baptised, has managed to steal several headlines. This roughly translates, in cultural (if not literal) terms, as 'Alcorcongate', just to keep you in the picture.

Real Madrid's 1-0 win over struggling Santander did little to assuage the feeling among Madridistas that despite a whole bundle of presents arriving in the post over the summer, the absence of the biggest and best (Ronaldo) has put the other toys into the shade from where they have rarely emerged. The exception, particularly in the Santander game, was Xabi Alonso, who is beginning to approach the best version that so often lit up the English Premier League. And all this coming on the back of his two decisive goals for Spain against Argentina last week.

Elsewhere in the side, various players - Drenthe, Marcelo, Granero - continue to sow the seeds of doubt as to whether they really belong as valid supports to their galactic company, since they seem unable to pull the side together when the big names are not performing - I refer to Kaká and Benzema in this instance. Gonzalo Higuaín continues to score decisive goals, but is a much poorer team player than Raúl, for example. That one should often replace the other, and that this should generate such debate, rather contributes to the feeling that Real Madrid have not really moved on much from last season. Galácticos what? Where are they, and what are they doing exactly? Ask their manager.

On Wednesday night it will be interesting to see how many of them are given a run-out against the theoretically weak FC Zurich, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo. Madrid, nevertheless, cannot afford to do a Rubin Kazan, and talking of which, Barça cannot afford to slip up at home to Inter, a fascinating game in itself, never mind next Sunday. Inter go to the Nou Camp like some sort of quasi-Spanish outfit, stocked with players who have trod the boards of La Liga, and most of whom have experienced el clásico. Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder, Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta, Walter Samuel, and Diego Milito (ex-Zaragoza) will all be there.

The other interesting fact about the Barcelona v Madrid game is that the latter go into it as La Liga leaders. Given all the wailing and gnashing of teeth at the Bernabéu, it is nevertheless a useful advantage at this stage. A draw would be most useful, but a win would potentially set the tone for the rest of the season. Barcelona cannot afford to let it happen, but it is difficult to predict at this stage, as I write this column, what effect the outcomes of the European games will have on the mood and result of the big game to come.

Not forgetting, as is often the case in these circumstances, that Sevilla are the side playing the best football in Spain at the moment, with morale sky-high and a low-key game in midweek from which they only require a point to ensure a top-of the-table finish to Group C. Moreover, they are only three points behind Real Madrid in the table and have two consecutive home games coming up, both of which look distinctly winnable (against Málaga and Valladolid). With Valencia tucked in a mere point behind Sevilla, the top four is beginning to take on a healthily competitive look, certainly more than was generally predicted at the start of the season.

Elsewhere, Kun Agüero was taking a leaf out his father-in-law's book for stretching the Spanish language to new heights, with a volley of imprecations aimed in the direction of referee Paradas Romero who had just awarded Deportivo a ridiculous penalty in the 95th minute of their home game against poor Atlético, a team for whom the fates seem to be dishing up poisonous plates on a weekly basis. It seemed to take several hours for Agüero, ably assisted by his team-mates, to actually cool down sufficiently for José Guardado to finally put the penalty away and send Atlético home pointless, just for a change. Next week they host Espanyol, in what must rank as a must-win game.

The results of this coming week look as if they may begin to shape the season to come in a more substantial way than we have seen so far. It's going to be pretty tasty, whatever happens. Book your places on the sofa, now.

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