Spain will grind to a halt this afternoon as El Clasico, the huge clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, gets underway at 6.15pm.
It doesn’t matter that we are down in southern Spain. For this match everyone is either a merengue or cule. When I was living in a tiny pueblo near Antequera, the bars were packed for this match, even though most of the locals had never been down to the coast, never mind Madrid.
When the teams meet tonight a win for Barcelona will send them six points clear and leave them on track to defend their Liga title, while success for Real Madrid would even things up.
Both teams face the issue of accommodating superstars and Barcelona manager Luis Enrique seems to have cracked it. Neymar, Suarez and Messi form a well-drilled, selfless, efficient front trio.
Real Madrid’s Benitez, meanwhile, is struggling with his players, and not just because injuries to Karim Benzema and Bale slowed the chemistry-building process. Bale and Ronaldo rank first and second as the most expensive players in history, but fitting them into the same lineup isn’t always straightforward.
Bale’s camp has complained in the past that he doesn’t see enough of the ball, and Ronaldo seems genuinely unhappy and pained when he doesn’t get it. Neither stands out defensively, and that’s a problem for a manager like Benitez who craves balance. Rumours are rife that the club may need to choose one or the other come the summer transfer window, a choice dictated by the bottom line as well as by playing considerations.
The biggest uncertainty lies in who will make it off the sick list. Sergio Ramos shot his injured shoulder up with painkillers to play in Madrid’s last league games and aggravated the injury when he landed on it after scoring a spectacular overhead kick for the opener. Benzema hasn’t played since the beginning of October though he’s back in training. For Barcelona, Ivan Rakitic suffered a calf injury in early November, and while he’s back in training, he wasn’t due back until next month.
And there’s the big one: Messi. He has been sidelined because of injury since late September and, in his absence, Neymar and Suarezhave taken on the scoring burden. Going back to the moment the Argentine limped off against Las Palmas, the pair have scored 19 of Barcelona’s 22 goals.
And while this is not the game for which you call in sick, Benitez and Enrique will have tough calls to make because the last thing you need is a star reinjuring himself.
No matter who plays though, no single game offers it as much as the Clasico. So head to the nearest bar at around 6pm tonight, grab a cold one, and enjoy the biggest match in the world!