New Reuters Spanish soccer blog
Starting today, Madrid-based Reuters sports correspondents Iain Rogers and Mark Elkington will be writing a regular Monday column on La Liga for the Reuters soccer blog.
In its inaugural edition, Iain looks at the how the great rivalry between Spain’s dominant clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid has taken on an added piquancy this season and reviews some talking points from the weekend league action.
Barca and Real facing off on three fronts
Catalonia versus Spain. Barcelona versus Madrid. Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho. Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo. Sandro Rosell versus Florentino Perez. Victor Valdes versus Iker Casillas and so on and so on.
The well-documented and often bitter rivalry between Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid stretches back many decades and across many levels.
This season, however, “El Clasico”, as matches between the country’s two dominant clubs are known, has taken on a greater significance than perhaps ever before.
Barca and Real are fighting on three fronts in the domestic league and cup and the Champions League and fans of Spanish soccer are licking their lips at the prospect of at least two, and possibly four, meetings between the pair in coming weeks.
The world’s two richest clubs are due to clash in Madrid in La Liga on the weekend of April 16/17, they face off in the King’s Cup final in Valencia on April 20 and will meet in the last four of the Champions League the final week of April and the first week of May if Barca can get past Shakhtar Donetsk and Real eliminate Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-finals.
Barca, who have a five-point lead at the top of La Liga with nine matches remaining, drew first blood when they won the first of the season’s “Clasicos” 5-0 at the Nou Camp at the end of November.
Nothing would please the club and their fans more than to heap further humiliation on Real and their Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho by scuppering their hopes of silverware in all three competitions.
A former assistant to Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barca, Mourinho incensed the Nou Camp with his wild celebrations last season when his Inter Milan side knocked Barca out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage.
Barring injury, the forthcoming “Clasicos” will also showcase the talents of the two players widely regarded as the best in the sport.
Barca’s Argentina forward Lionel Messi and the man he replaced as World Player of the Year, Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo of Real, are level at the top of the La Liga scoring chart on 27 goals.
Messi is also the joint leading marksman in the Champions League, with eight goals to Ronaldo’s four, and has outscored the world’s most expensive player by seven to six in the King’s Cup.
So the stakes for the two clubs could scarcely be higher and it will not be a surprise if we see more of the bad-tempered scuffling that marred the final moments of November’s game.
Tempers frayed despite the fact that the two clubs have 13 players from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad in their ranks, eight from Barca and five from Real.
It was Real defender Sergio Ramos who disgraced himself in that match, picking up a red card after a wild challenge on Messi and pushing Barca and Spain centre back Carles Puyol in the face as he left the pitch.
On current form, you would expect Barca to coast to a third straight league title and you would be unwise to bet against them over two legs in the Champions League.
The King’s Cup final may be Real’s best, perhaps even their only, hope of a trophy.
La Liga matchday 29
Barca and Real stretched further away at the top of La Liga as both went 2-0 ahead and both conceded late goals before closing out 2-1 wins at home to Getafe and away at Atletico Madrid respectively.
The results preserved Barca’s five-point lead over Real at the top of the standings and meant more misery for Atletico, who have not won a Madrid derby since October 1999.
The game at the Calderon was spoiled by some offensive chanting directed at Real’s Brazilian defender Marcelo (“You are a monkey”) and Ronaldo (“Die Cristiano”) by the Atletico fans.
Authorities are unlikely to take any action after the referee neglected to mention the incidents in his match report, describing the behaviour of the supporters as “normal”.
Real had some worrying news the day after the match when tests showed Ronaldo had aggravated a hamstring injury and he was ruled out for up to three weeks.
Villarreal climbed above Valencia into third on goal difference as the club with the distinctive canary-yellow strip claimed a 1-0 win at Athletic Bilbao and Valencia fell to a solitary Ivan Rakitic strike in an entertaining encounter at home to Sevilla.
Top six points totals after 29 matches: Barca 78, Real 73, Villarreal 54, Valencia 54, Espanyol 43, Athletic Bilbao 42.
Bottom six: Sporting Gijon 32, Deportivo Coruna 31, Real Zaragoza 30, Malaga 29, Almeria 26, Hercules 26.
Goal of the weekend
Dani Alves’s stunner to open the scoring against Getafe. A headed clearance looped into the Brazilian defender’s path in the 17th minute and he caught the falling ball perfectly on the half-volley to send it fizzing past Getafe keeper Jordi Codina from 25 metres.
Save of the weekend
Racing Santander were beating Real Sociedad 2-1 at home with a minute to go when they gave away a freekick on the edge of their area. Diego Ifran curled his shot over the wall and stationary Racing keeper Tono watched as the ball hit the post. It flew across the goal and Tono reached behind him to collect the ball, when he could have so easily knocked it into his own net. La Real’s players desperately appealed to the linesman but a goal was not given. TV replays were not conclusive. Another case for goal-line technology?
Loser of the weekend
September’s shock 2-0 win over champions Barca at the Nou Camp seems a long time ago now. Hercules coach Esteban Vigo gets the chop after his side were thrashed 4-0 at home to Osasuna and slipped to the foot of the table.
PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (R) and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi react during their Spanish first division soccer match at Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, November 29, 2010. REUTERS/Albert Gea.