There's been a lot of marketing activities around El Clasico on Saturday afternoon. There have been installations across the globe, former LaLiga players (now, ambassadors) have talked about the game. As has league president Javier Tebas. It is arguably the biggest football game if you think TV viewership. English Premier League, with all its might and jaw-dropping numbers, still can't match Barcelona vs Real Madrid. The game drew millions in the past and that is expected to increase in the face of the pandemic with no fans allowed at the Camp Nou.
A 99,000 seater Camp Nou would be empty for a Clasico. A spectacle, a sporting extravaganza diminished to 'just another game'. A phrase used so often across sports and yet it loses meaning for a Clasico. Even for such a Clasico.
"The Clasico is still the Clasico. For the league it's another match but for intrigue and international appeal, it's the two biggest clubs in the world going face to face. It's still the most important club game in the world," said Tebas in an interview with AFP.
Historically and by appeal, they might be two biggest clubs in the world but their current form and allure is a reflection of what they once were. Maybe, the presence of fans would have made this a spectacle because the football can be abject at times.
Take hosts Barcelona first. They've got a new manager in Ronald Koeman. Lionel Messi tried his utmost to get out but remains by virtue of his history with the club rather than promise of achieving once again. Transfer business saw multiple embarrassments. That's just their eight weeks off the field. If that wasn't enough, Barcelona captains (Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto) have reportedly sent a letter to the president Josep Bartomeu, who is facing a vote of no confidence, and board members describing their process on salary cut talks as "embarrassing".
On the field, things have been patchy. Comfortable wins against Villarreal, Celta Vigo have been followed by draw with Sevilla - not the worst result but the performance left a lot to be desired - loss against Getafe last week and a midweek Champions League win against Ferencvaros. To put into context, though, a win over a Hungarian club that regularly doesn't play at Europe's top level competition shouldn't deflect the focus from Barca's on-field troubles.
Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest occupy the left and right wing respectively, or they should, but tend to move into a congested midfield of Frenkie de Jong, Busquets, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati and Messi. Pretty much all of Barcelona's players in this setup tend to compact the pitch instead of the tried-and-tested strategy that won them multiple trophies under Pep Guardiola.
Then there is the curious case of Griezmann. The Frenchman hasn't scored since July, making it eight games without a goal. The same cannot be said when he turns up for the French national team. He's scored three goals for Les Bleus in four games and took a shot at Koeman after beating Croatia. "The coach knows where to put me," Griezmann said of France manager Didier Deschamps in an interview with TF1. "I take advantage of this situation, of this place, of the confidence of the coach and my team-mates."
Griezmann has started all four league games for Barcelona but didn't feature versus Ferencvaros. Koeman didn't dwell on the possibility of Antoine starting and more importantly, where on the pitch. It remains to be seen how Koeman plays out his first Clasico as Barca manager.
Chaos at Real Madrid
If Barcelona made two signings in the transfer window, Real Madrid made none. For the first time in 40 years, the club which created the 'Galactico' policy, brought no one in on account of financial difficulties caused by the pandemic.
On the pitch, it is chaos (as well). "Cada dia peor" read Madrid-based Marca's headline on Thursday. "Sonrojo" said AS. "Worse each day" and "shameful" with an image of Thibaut Courtois picking the ball from the back of the net. And he had to do that thrice in a matter of 13 minutes on Wednesday.
A catastrophic performance in the first half allowed a coronavirus-affected Shakhtar Donetsk to score three past Real Madrid at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium in the Champions League. To put that into perspective, Real conceded as many goals in 13 minutes than they did in the nine games since the restart that effectively won them the league in July.
The abject performance against Shakhtar came days after an equally poor performance over Cadiz. The newly promoted side created bulk of the opportunities but only won 1-0 in the end.
Zinedine Zidane played down that this was the most difficult period in his tenure as club manager. But he would breathe better knowing captain Sergio Ramos is fit to feature against Barcelona.
"He's our captain, our leader. He's over his injury, but obviously we won't take any risks. He'll be with us, you need players who are 100 percent fit and Sergio is," Zidane said on Friday.
For Real, the challenge since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure has been in creating goals while the defence has held firm. In the league-winning season, Los Blancos let past just 25 goals, the best in the division, with 18 clean sheets. Against Cadiz and Shakhtar, the defence was in sixes and sevens with the two centre backs not being able to hold their line.
One could argue that it is due to the injuries in the Madrid camp. Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola, right backs, are injured which forced Ferland Mendy, a naturally left-footed player, to play at right back against the Ukrainian club. Marcelo, not the best of defenders, occupied the left back position with Eder Militao and Raphael Varane playing centrally.
With Ramos slated to come in after his knee troubles, it restores the first choice pairing at centre back. The challenge will be on the right where Nacho Fernandez could come in but it doesn't inspire much confidence. Another option would be to play Lucas Vazquez in that role but the attack-minded Spaniard could expose a fragile defence against Barcelona's strong left wing.
Troubles continue further up the pitch with Eden Hazard and Martin Odegaard both injured as well. It once again raises the question: where will the goals come from?
Karim Benzema is the prime candidate and a definite starter for the Clasico. Having leaked goals and opportunities in the last two matches, Zidane could go for a 4-4-2 setup with Casemiro, Federico Valverde, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric all packing the midfield to control the game in the midfield. That leads to the predicament for Zizou: should Benzema play alongside a Luka Jovic, who lacks confidence but can bulldoze his way in the box, or a Vinicius Jr. who can have a run at defenders but allows gaps to emerge every time he ventures forward.
In normal circumstances, neither club dare lose the Clasico. It is a make-or-break result in the grand scheme of things. But with both clubs one defeat away from a 'crisis', avoiding defeat becomes more important than all three points. With that said, it wouldn't be a surprise if both managers would be content with a draw.
El Clasico: Barcelona vs Real Madrid kicks-off at 7.30 PM IST on Saturday.