It is the greatest match in the history of organised football: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. Nicknamed "El Clasico," it is a battle that encompasses all the flair, daring, skill, enmity, sporting and social significance that can possibly be bottled into a 90-minute footballing fixture.
Yes, this season's first Clasico was postponed by seven weeks due to social disturbances across Barcelona and Catalunya, and yes, the hosts, Barça, and Real Madrid are tied on points at the top of La Liga ahead of Wednesday's clash. There's an added desperation to win the first head-to-head of the season in case it's decisive to the title race, even though it's only December.
These facts add spice, but the context? That's enormously more significant than the simple here and now of Dec. 18, 2019. This is an epic rivalry that stretches magnificently across 90 years in La Liga and nearly another 30 years prior to that in other competitions. By the way, during those 90 years, Madrid and Barça have played 179 times in La Liga, and the glorious fact is these two enemies are still tied with 72 wins each. It's remarkable.
If you take all of the matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona, you can smell the bristling aggression of archrivals even more strongly: The above statistic reeks of testosterone and the primeval idea of "I will not be beaten by you," but in all competitions, they've played 242 matches, and Barcelona lead by one victory. Barca 96, Madrid 95. It's simply astonishing. However, this has become a super-charged fixture since, under the influence of Johan Cruyff football, Barcelona learned to be competitive again.
The true guide is the past decade, during which time the balance has tipped violently northeast toward Camp Nou. Of those 21 Liga Clasicos, Madrid have won just four to Barca's 13. Since May 2009, Pep Guardiola's first season in charge, this is what Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabeu and billions watching around the world have witnessed. Twenty-one Liga Clasicos with 77 goals for a sumptuous average of 3.6 goals per game. If you throw in all other competitions, Copa, Champions League and Supercopa, the past 10 years have given us 37 variations of Barça vs. Madrid and 126 goals, and 3.1 million people have paid to sit, spellbound, in each of the clubs' stadiums, plus two Copa Del Rey finals at Mestalla, secure in the knowledge that they'd be thrilled.
In case you weren't aware, it has been 17 beautiful years since there was a 0-0 draw in this classical clash of cultures. Turn up or tune in, and you're guaranteed entertainment.
What will happen this time?
Mr. Messi to the stage, please
The Clasico is Lionel Messi's signature match. If Barcelona are to win the first of this season, then surely the explosive little genius who just won the FIFA Best award, claimed his sixth Ballon D'Or and has been La Liga's dominant footballer since he shook off early-season injuries will take the game by the scruff of the neck? Well, maybe.
Messi's Liga impact has been high of late, but his form has looked increasingly disenchanted. The past five Clasicos, he has started just three and scored only once. A year ago, the men in Blaugrana won 5-1 against Julen Lopetegui's Madrid, with Messi sitting in the VIP players area of the Camp Nou Tribuna.
Who needs to step up? Well, don't worry about Luis Suarez. Like Messi, he lives and breathes for velociraptor matches such as this. Not only is he Messi's greatest strike partner, but Suarez has also scored 11 times in 14 career Clasicos and lost just four of them.
Three others stand out. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is unquestionably enjoying the season of his life, but his previous two Liga matches saw errors that cost Barca goals. That can't happen again Wednesday if a powerful-looking Madrid are to be kept at bay. The other two are Gerard Pique and Ivan Rakitic. Each relishes this battle above any other. Each digs deep for form, inspiration and sheer, naked will to win.
A big opportunity for Madrid
Barcelona have been tasty at home in La Liga this season, with seven wins and 30 goals in just seven matches. But hold on. Of the 10 Camp Nou Clasicos dating to May 2009, Madrid have drawn or won five times, and three of Barcelona's victories have been by a single goal. Last year's 5-1 Messi-less win was an astonishing match, but many will have forgotten that, until Ernesto Valverde threw on Ousmane Dembele to rip open Madrid's gaps in midfield, Barcelona were being pummelled at 2-1 up and should have been hauled back.
Zidane's back five picks itself, as does most of his midfield (Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde, Casemiro). But does the Frenchman attempt to win the middle of the pitch and impose his strategy that way, hence a choice between Luka Madrid or Isco and then two up front? Or does he try to pin back Barcelona's wide defenders by using Gareth Bale and Rodrygo in a 4-3-3?
I think he'll go for Madrid's fab four, including Modric, in midfield with Karim Benzema and Bale hitting on the counter.
Key battle: All eyes on Busquets
This contest is such a "caja de sorpresas" (a "compendium of brilliant surprises") that it's impossible to claim the points will be assured by just one head-to-head battle. We'll witness temper, ingenuity, mistakes, tension and impish improvisation. We'll see all the elements that draw us, irresistibly, to adore competitive sport to the core of our beings. But such is the comprehensive "click" within Madrid's engine room, and such are the difficulties being encountered by what has traditionally been the "brain trust" of how Barcelona play their modern football that you'd be tempted to say "advantage Madrid."
Sergio Busquets is just as shrewd, visionary, technically gifted and wonderful to witness (on form) as he ever was. But around him, the gradual crumbling of the style he grew up learning (all the Cruyff/Pep Guardiola principles) has highlighted that he can be hustled and hassled into more mistakes than he has committed before.
With Frenkie De Jong, energy personified, and Rakitic either side of him, he can still turn a match with touches of inspiration. But such is the fluidity and impact of the Casemiro-Valverde axis in the middle for Los Blancos that there's a chance that unless Busquets hugely raises his level compared to Saturday at Anoeta (he was subbed off), Zidane's men have a slight edge in an area that, in recent years, has been their downfall.
Will Hazard, Dembele be missed?
A game this big can withstand some notable absences. It might sound crazy, but Madrid will probably miss Eden Hazard more in games that don't resemble this one.
Had he been fit, the Belgian would have started Wednesday without question. He's a loss because his link-play with Benzema was becoming irresistible. But Barcelona will never "sit-in" and park the bus in a fixture such as this, a situation that Hazard will increasingly be asked to unpick as this season reaches its do-or-die months. As for Marcelo, Alfredo Di Stefano used to say that a game without goals was like a day without sunshine. Any match without Marcelo will lack a little bit of creative mayhem, laughter and invention. But Ferland Mendy has grown into his role, is much better defensively and is both young and fast. Barcelona beware.
For Barcelona, it's painful to admit that even given his startlingly beautiful talents, Dembele isn't yet a gigantic loss, yet he likely wouldn't have started. He remains so elusive that he couldn't find his form if it were sent to him recorded delivery in a shoebox marked "Private: to be opened only by Dembele."
How will they line up?
I guess Barça will set up as follows: Ter Stegen in goal; Sergi Roberto, Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba or Semedo in defence; Rakitic, Busquets, De Jong in midfield; Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann up front. It's an XI that is unquestionably capable of winning this match, but there are one or two who look slightly frayed and jaded or aren't yet at peak fitness. Namely Alba, Lenglet, Busquets, Semedo and Messi.
As for Madrid? Well, they should look like this: Thibaut Courtois in goal; Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Mendy in defence; Modric, Valverde, Casemiro and Kroos in midfield, with Bale and Benzema up front. It's far from impossible that Isco nicks that place from Modric who, after all, can't consistently hide the fact that he's now 34.
What I'd guess is that there are going to be opportunities for the terrible twins, Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr., to mimic what Dembele did for Barcelona last year -- namely, hit the ground running in a "broken" game and test whether anyone can keep up with him. Bale will be the one asked to win aerial battles, breakaway sprints and long-distance shooting contests for Zidane's team until the Brazilians get the nod.
Finally, the $64,000 question: Who will win?
Take a snapshot of when this match was due to be played back in October. Since then, Madrid have improved out of sight. In late October, they'd scored only 16 times with a goal difference of plus-seven. They'd dropped nine points. They haven't lost a game since, scoring 17 times in seven matches and dropping just four points. In recent years, Barcelona have been smarter on the ball and sharper at passing their way out of trouble: They've been dominant for a host of reasons, not least the Messi-Suarez dynamic. They're dynamite.
This match smells like one of those 2-2 draws in which the ebb and flow swells and throbs between fitness of limbs, clarity of thought and shrewdness of experience in this all-time classic footballing battle. I recommend you don't miss it at any cost.