Barca enter the game 10 points clear of third-placed Madrid in the table, 39 games unbeaten in all competitions, and well-placed to repeat last season’s treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League successes.
Madrid have just pride to play for domestically after a horrific 12 months and, realistically, only Champions League success this season can stop a summer of further upheaval.
Today’s game comes after a period of mourning at the Catalan club, following Cruyff’s death from lung cancer on March 24. Before kick-off 80,000 fans will collectively hold up a cardboard mosaic saying ‘Gracies Johan’ while Barca captain Andres Iniesta and team talisman Lionel Messi [on 499 senior career goals] have vowed to mark the occasion with something special.
Such reverence for Cruyff is unsurprising given what the Dutchman did for Barca at all levels. When he arrived as a player from Ajax in 1973, Barca had gone 13 years without winning La Liga. Before he became coach in 1990, they had won 10 Spanish titles in their entire history and no European Cups. Since then they have won 13 leagues and five European Cups/Champions Leagues.
Pep Guardiola was the midfield organiser in the ‘Dream Team’ which made the European breakthrough in the early 1990s, and then oversaw his own ‘Pep Team’ when he took charge in 2008.
“Cruyff built a cathedral here,” Guardiola has said. “We just had to maintain it.”
The Barca team based around front three Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar is more direct and less theoretical than past sides. Yet speaking last week, coach Luis Enrique said he was building on what he had inherited.
“Cruyff leaves behind a great legacy that this club will continue,” the former Barca midfielder said. “We’ll keep trying to copy and improve this style of play, thinking not just of results but also spectacular attacking football.”
Such continuity contrasts markedly with the chaos at Madrid — where club chief Perez has regularly gone through coaches and superstars during his two turbulent terms in charge. Carlo Ancelotti guided Los Blancos to the Champions League in 2014, but was sacked a year later. Rafa Benitez then lasted only six months. His replacement, former galactico Zinedine Zidane, has had a difficult start to his senior managerial career.
Madrid have lost every Clasico in which their attacking trio Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo has started, with Barca’s more balanced team controlling the midfield and leaving ‘the BBC’ stranded.
Nevertheless all three galacticos are set to start tonight, although Zidane will likely take the pragmatic step of starting holding midfielder Casemiro and leaving €80m playmaker James Rodriguez on the bench.
Zidane is relishing the challenge tonight. “ It’s a football game,” he said. “We must remember that and enjoy it — to play against good players and test yourself against Barca. I will enjoy [today] my first Barca v Madrid as a coach. I’m not thinking about the end of the season, what we will win or not. The important thing is to continue as we have been doing recently, and to keep our good form going. We will then see at the end of the season what happens.”
Tonight’s result is unlikely to really factor in this season’s title race — and both teams will quickly move forward to their mid-week Champions League quarter-finals. But a big Barca win would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Cruyff. And leave the galactico model embodied by Zidane and promoted by Florentino looking even more suspect.