The opening whistle of Saturday's Liga game between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona will herald a mouthwatering quartet of matches between the Spanish giants. With the prize of a UEFA Champions League final place for the team still standing in three weeks' time, these encounters will enrich their fabled rivalry.
Real Madrid's 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur FC on Wednesday confirmed their progress to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals and a double date with Barcelona on 27 April and 3 May; their old friends had completed their own comfortable handling of FC Shakhtar Donetsk the night before. The prospect of the duo meeting in Europe inevitably brings added resonance to their upcoming domestic tussles, with José Mourinho's men hoping to trim Barça's eight-point Liga lead at the Santiago Bernabéu this weekend, ahead of their Copa del Rey final contest in Valencia on Wednesday.
'A game like no other'
One man familiar with the adrenaline rush both sets of players will experience is Steve McManaman. The former Madrid winger describes the fixture as "a game like no other". Never on the losing side in seven matches against Barcelona between 1999 and 2003, the ex-England international also scored in Madrid's 3-1 aggregate success over the Azulgrana in the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League semi-finals, en route to the second of his two European titles with the club.
"El Clásico is like nothing else because of the history and the tradition," he told UEFA.com. "I must admit I loved those games. If you get the right result, you enjoy everything about it. If you lose, though, it's an absolute disaster. When we played nine years ago, it was coupled with being a Champions League eliminator, so it was an incredible scenario."
It was also a familiar scenario for older Madrid fans, who had seen Madrid beat their arch-rivals from Catalonia at the same stage of the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1959/60, as they marched towards a fifth consecutive triumph in the competition. Barça exacted revenge in the first round the following season when they became the first side to knock the holders out, but it was McManaman and Co who then ensured the weight of history will be behind the capital club when they resume their continental rivalry later this month.
"Looking back, we probably had better world-class individual players at that time, who could strike at any moment and turn a game," explained the 39-year-old. "We also had very good team spirit. Having said that, I think this current Madrid side is a really good one, even if their results in the past five or six years perhaps haven't been the best."
The recent momentum certainly belongs to Saturday's visitors, Barcelona having conquered Europe twice in five years, during which time Madrid failed to breach the round of 16. Josep Guardiola's men also come to the capital looking to take a major stride towards their third straight Liga crown, not to mention buoyed by the teams' last showdown. The Merengues boast 85 wins to their opponents' 82 in 209 competitive meetings, although it is the shadow of Barcelona's 5-0 procession in November that may loom largest over the Bernabéu.
Argentina forward Lionel Messi did not score that night, yet he and Madrid counterpart Cristiano Ronaldo have been in scintillating form this term. For all the regional and political dimensions to the so-called Clásico, it has also been a rivalry of great players, and while Ronaldo has racked up a superb 28 strikes in the Liga this season, he trails Messi by one goal in the Pichichi standings.
That pair will again carry the hopes of their respective supporters on Saturday, as they will between now and the end of the campaign, and retired French international Christian Karembeu – also a two-time UEFA Champions League winner with Madrid – spoke of the immense importance of the fixture to fans in both camps.
"From young kids to adults, the game is taken very seriously. It's very important," he said. "It's a generational thing; a lot of the seats in both stadiums have been reserved for season-ticket holders going back countless years. These are the two greatest clubs in Spain and it's always been about the desire for one team to outdo the other. It's an eternal rivalry."
'The whole world stops'
Former Barcelona full-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst calls the forthcoming saga "very interesting". Above all, he predicts Mourinho's troops will be desperate to reverse their Camp Nou loss. "I'm sure they'll be looking to rectify things after that 5-0 result last time out," he said. "Knowing that these teams will also play each other in the cup final and the Champions League is great, especially when you consider the enormity of each occasion."
A winner of three Clásicos in four seasons in Catalonia, the 2006 UEFA Champions League winner expects these showdowns to reverberate far beyond Spanish borders too, with perhaps no other rivalry so keenly anticipated around the globe. "The whole world stops to watch this match; that shows just how huge it is."
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