Spanish football is entering a new era
Over the past decade, El Clásico has spoiled us. During the era of Pep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho, the two best managers in the world led the two biggest clubs, with the world's two best players. That often culminated in a six-man defensive block attempting to kick Lionel Messi's legs off for 90 minutes, at least one brawl, half a dozen cards, and at least three brilliant goals. It was box office football, the type of fixture even casual fans would make sure they never missed.
A new age of Clásicos begins tomorrow!
⭐ Who are the next Clásico stars?
🔥 Can Benzema maintain his incredible form?
⏱️ How long will Ansu Fati play?
Here's everything you need to know ahead of Barcelona vs Real Madrid... pic.twitter.com/Say17IKD5V
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) October 23, 2021
But in recent years, the fixture's draw has waned for neutral viewers. Superstar players have left, a gaping hole has been left in both club's finances (Barcelona to a much greater extent), and in 2019 the two sides played out their first goalless draw in 17 years. But as both teams endure transitional periods, new narratives develop, new stars emerge, and and the magic returns.
One of those news stars is of course Ansu Fati. After breaking every record possible for both Barcelona and Spain, the club entrusted him with wearing the iconic number 10 jersey. For most 18-year-olds (yes, he's somehow still only 18), this responsibility would weigh heavy on their shoulders. Losing Messi was a traumatic enough experience for the club; taking on that mantle is no easy task. But the forward has thrived under such pressure, becoming Barça's main man in attack and giving fans a reason to get off their seats again.
La Liga TV pundit Gaizka Mendieta is hoping this Clásico will help to sell Spanish football to the rest of the world again at a time when it has fallen behind the Premier League with regards to big names.
"That's what people watch football for, is to see talent," he told JOE at La Liga TV's Barcelona-based studios.
"If you watch La Liga regularly you can see many teams have talented players.
"Mostly outside of Spain, the fans of La Liga will focus mainly on the top teams but won't watch many of the rest. It's our job to tell the rest of the world about the new talent that is coming through.
"It will be a matter of time, in the next few years, that these players will be known internationally. When Iniesta and Xavi started, hardly anyone knew them, and then they became superstars.
"La Liga's job, as an organisation, is to show the talent is there, that it's growing, and that it will be the future."
Without meaning to intensify the pressure already bestowed upon him without outlandish comparisons, there were glimpses of the combination play Messi used to enjoy with Luis Suárez between Ansu and Memphis Depay in Barcelona's last league game against Valencia.
As Ansu dribbled inside from the left wing, he played a one-two with Memphis, before curling the ball into the far corner to equalise against Los Che. It mirrored the sort of goal we've seen Messi score countless times from the opposite wing, and gave us a peak into what the future of Barcelona's attack could hold.
Ansu Fati equalises for Barcelona! Superb finish after nice little one-two with Memphis Depay pic.twitter.com/SfLNrVK2Rb
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) October 17, 2021
Fati's rise is just one example of Barcelona embracing their roots again after years of expensive waste. Another academy product to have burst onto the scene in recent months is Gavi, a midfielder whose movement, both with and without the ball, is reminiscent of former stars Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Much like Fati, Gavi appears immune to the pressures of playing for Barcelona. Having developed in their famed La Masia academy, his adaptation from youth football to the first team, and the senior national team, has been seamless.
Then of course there is Pedri, whose recent contract extension saw him tied down to a €1 billion release clause; Barcelona have learned from Neymar's departure that these obligatory clauses can never be too high. While he is not technically an academy product - Pedri arrived from Las Palmas in 2020 for just €5 million - he has learned the Barça way of playing with minimal fuss and quickly become the linchpin of their midfield trio. Unfortunately for fans, but fortunately for Madrid, he will miss this Clásico through injury. Still, Frenkie De Jong is not a bad option to have in the centre of the park.
Madrid's transitional period post-Ronaldo has been less traumatic, with Benzema stepping up to become their talisman. At 33 years of age, he is playing some of the best football of his career and looks capable of leading the line for at least three more seasons. He will be a handful for Barça's defence, comprised of an ageing Gerard Piqué and Eric Garcia, whose lack of physicality Madrid will seek to exploit.
Karim Benzema has made an unbelievable start to the LaLiga season 🔥
Five games, six goals, five assists and forging quite a partnership with Vini Jr. pic.twitter.com/lfc7wZ11iF
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 22, 2021
To his left, Vinicius Jr, or 'Vini Jr', as he has recently rebranded to, is Madrid's answer to Ansu. The Brazilian's talent has always been plain to see, but this season he has elevated his game to the next level, becoming more productive in front of goal, boasting a tally of seven goals already this season.
Vini Jr. jumps into the Bernabeu crowd after putting Real Madrid 3-2 up!
Karim Benzema, in the form of his life with the assist, Vinícius Júnior tidy finish, obligatory booking for exuberance, didn't seem fussed. pic.twitter.com/F2F1rQycky
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 12, 2021
And typical of his predecessors on the left wing at Madrid, he is never afraid to bring out some showboating for our entertainment.
Naughty bit of back control by Vini Jr. 😈 pic.twitter.com/W1TSPYvXdP
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 25, 2021
Much like how Barcelona struggled to bring through new talent in midfield for years because Xavi and Iniesta were too good to displace, Madrid have lined up with the same trio in big games since Casemiro's breakthrough in 2015. Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić's enduring quality has made it very easy for successive managers to leave out the likes of Isco and James Rodriguez. But, for all his magic on the ball, the Croatian now requires more careful management at the age of 36.
This has afforded Federico Valverde, and new arrival Eduardo Camavinga, more minutes on the pitch. Valverde is the epitome of the modern midfielder, possessing a unique combination of close control, dribbling ability, a vast passing range and a powerful physique. Don't be surprised to see him start on Sunday and target Gavi in the midfield battle.
Other key battles will feature the aforementioned Ansu Fati, whose direct opponent will likely be Lucas Vazquez, filling in for Dani Carvajal in an unfamiliar right-back role, and Vini Jr, who will target Sergi Roberto's relative lack of athleticism in the opposite corner of the pitch.
If both teams play to their best, which they tend to do in these fixtures, it is set to be a must-watch.
Watch ElClásico on LaLigaTV this Sunday. Coverage begins from 1pm with Gary Lineker hosting LIVE from the Camp Nou alongside Aitor Karanka and Albert Ferrer. Sign up to LaLigaTV with Premier Sports on Sky 435 / Virgin 554 or via streaming with Premier Player and Amazon Prime Video Channels.