Depending on who you ask, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid is either the greatest rivalry in European football, all of football, or all of sports.
For me personally, I would put it near the top in all sports, probably tied with Yankees-Red Sox, and Michigan-Ohio State. The match, known as El Clasico, is without a doubt one of the most important of any year, as it will usually have at least some impact on how each team finishes.
First, we should understand why it is such a huge rivalry. The first reason is obvious; both teams are good. In fact, most consider them to be the two most successful teams in the history of European football. Whenever you have to great teams who play each other often, a rivalry is bound to form. It's just the nature of sports in general.
Real Madrid is the winningest team in the history of La Liga and Europe, with 74 total titles, including a record 9 European Championships (now called the Champions League). Barcelona is right behind Madrid, with 72 titles, including 4 European Cups.
However, a more subtle reason, but with a more profound impact, is the rivalry between regions. Madrid, being the capital of Spain, is home to the Spanish royalty. Barcelona is in a region of Spain known as Catalonia, whose citizens identify themselves as catalan/catlonians rather than hispanic/Spaniards. Catalonia even has it's own language, which while similar to Spanish, is different enough that most Europeans can easily tell the difference (Americans generally cannot). Because of this international rift, the supporters tend to look to the two teams to assert their region's dominance over the other.
I don't want to go too much into the actual history of the rivalry, but I do want to quickly look at recent meetings, to put the current rivalry in perspective.
After having fallen to the mid-table during the 90s, Madrid won 2 league titles and two Champions Leagues in the early 2000s, under what is now known as the galacticos era, which saw such famous players as Raul, Zidane, Beckham, and Ronaldo (Brazil).
After those players departed, Barcelona took advantage to win 5 league titles, and 3 of their four European titles. In all 5 seasons that Barcelona has won the title, Real has finished second. In addition, the two teams met in last year's CL semis, with Barca winning 3-1 on aggregate.
Since the end of los galacticos, Barca has dominated the rivalry, with a record of 7-4-3 (W-D-L) since 2006. With players such as Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol, Barcelona has managed to break out as the best team in the world, while Madrid struggled to keep pace. Oh, and they also have this guy named Messi.
However in 2009, Madrid made several major signings beginning with 2007 Player of the Year Kaka from Milan, for a then-record fee of $60 million. They then topped this later in the summer by signing Manchester United star Christiano Ronaldo for an earth-shattering $90 million. Since then, they have continued to add talent, with talented youths such as Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria, and Karim Benzema. Though the 2009/10 seasons still saw Barcelona as the superior club, the players have finally gained a level of teamwork and camaraderie that could allow them to supplant the Catalans.
So now let's break it down and compare the teams across the various parts of the game.
Right out of the gates we have an intense matchup between two keepers who are at the top of their trade. Victor Valdes is the keeper at Barca, and has done an incredible job in the net since making the jump to the senior team in 2002, after growing up in barcelona's youth system. What he may lack in speed and reflexes he makes up for in positioning, as there might be no better goalie in Europe at cutting of angles. Though he was the number three goalie for the national team when they won the World Cup, he has since jumped Liverpool Keeper Pepe Reina as the number 2 selection. On almost any other team, he would be number 1.
Unfortunately, Spain's number 1 also happens to be Real Madrid's goalkeeper; the one and only Iker Casillas. Known as 'Saint Iker' to fans, Casillas is undoubtedly the greatest goalkeeper in the world right now. As a fan of Italy, it truly pains me to say that, as our keeper Buffon had for a long time been considered the best, though at 33 he is beginning to slow down. But there can be no denying Casillas' skill, as there is truly no single flaw in his game. He will occasionally have a bad match, but Casillas, like Buffon, doesn't have any weakness in his game for opponents to exploit. When he is playing his best, you aren't going to score. Fun fact, in 2000, Casillas became the youngest starting goalkeeper to win the Champions League. He was 18.
Spain national coach already made this decision obvious, but we might as well repeat it.
Winner: Casillas/Real Madrid
Madrid has a dominant defense featuring Brazillian Marcelo, as well as Portugese wing-backs Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho. Holding everything together is Spanish international Sergio Ramos. Aside from managing to keep shots on goal to a minimum, all four players are capable of playing a significant role at midfield, with superior dribbling abilities to most defenders. These four make up what is probably the most technically-gifted defense in the world.
Don't tell that to Barcelona however, because you'll probably end up with a couple broken bones. Brazillian Dani Alves is probably the most exciting player on the defense, as he is not only a solid defender but also a gifted passer, and frequently makes good plays up the field. But it's the other two members of this line that really make the difference. Gerard Pique, though only 23, has established himself as one of the best shut-down defenders in the game, and is one of the highest paid players in the world at his position. Finally, there's Charles Puyol. There is not much one can say about him, except that, with Italy's Fabio Cannavaro, Puyol has been the best shutdown defender of the last decade. As team captain, he is constantly pushing those around him to succeed, and forces them to play at the highest level. Also his hair is just awesome.
Winner: It's good to have a multi-talented defense. But their first job is to stop the opposing team. And no one does it like Barcelona.
This is probably the closest matchup of the bunch. Barcelona's midfield seems ripped straight from the Spanish national team, as it features the same four starters. Sergio Busquets is a great passer, and has the ability to score when put in a good position. The main scoring threat from this midfield comes from Cesc Fabregas, who occasionally will play as a striker. Solid finishing skills and technique make him a viable option to score from the wing.
However, it's the other two midfielders that form the heart of the Barcelona offense. Xavi Hernandez is the ultimate playmaker, who somehow appears to read the entire field at once. His untouchable passing ability has earned him the nickname 'the puppet master'. Alongside him is Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal for Spain in the World Cup Final. Arguably the best dribbler in Spain's history, Iniesta works tirelessly to get opposing defenses out of position, setting up his teammates for the score. Individually they are each Top 10 All-Time Midfielders. Together, they form possibly the most fearsome combo in football history.
It's scary how good this unit got in so little time. Last year, the starting midfield lineup was more or less the same, but lacked cohesiveness. Sure they scored, a lot, but they lacked the flow and game-controlling ability of Barca's dominant duo. This year however things are beginning to turn around. Youngsters Ozil and di Maria have shined at almost every opportunity, paving the way for what has been the highest scoring offense in La Liga this season. In fact they've been so good that Kaka, only 4 years ago considered the best in the world, has spent most of the season on the bench. Oh, and vice-captain Xabi Alonso is without doubt one of the most underrated and under appreciated players in the world. He isn't a goal-scoring threat, nor an elegant playmaker, but he is the heart and soul of Madrid's midfield. One of the best ball-winners in the game, he can stop an attacker in his tracks, steal the ball, and set a play in motion, all in less than a second.
And then there's Cristiano Ronaldo. Love him or hate him, he is widely considered to be the second best player in the world. He scored a record 40 goals in la Liga last season, and 54 across all competitions. This year, he has driven himself to be much more of a team player, passing the ball where in previous years he would take a shot. He is also the best free-kick taker in the world right now. And you know what? I actually like Ronaldo, more than Messi even. It takes a lot of class to be as hated as him, take as much criticism as him, and still go out and perform at the highest level day in and day out. That doesn't mean he's better, I just like him more (but we'll come back to that later).
Winner: Real Madrid I can't tell you how hard this was to decide. Ultimately, it came down to the fact that with age, Xavi and Iniesta have begun to slow down, the latter having had some injury problems as of late.
The longest-tenured member of Madrid's offense is incidentally one of it's youngest. Argentine Gonzalo Higuain has made a remarkable return from injury to be the third highest-scoring player in La Liga this year (Messi and Ronaldo are tied for first), with 12 goals in less than half a season. His play in front of goal is fantastic, and blends perfectly with frontline-teammate Karim Benzema. The young frenchman is not as gifted with the ball as Higuain, but excels at finding the open space in the defense, setting up some really wonderful goals.
David Villa is, like Xavi and Iniesta, starting to look his age. After scoring 5 goals in leading Spain to the World Cup, he moved from Valencia to Barcelona. By this time however, the man who was once the most feared finisher in the world had somewhat lost his touch. And by 'somewhat' I mean he will still slot it by the goalkeeper nine times out of ten if you leave him one-on-one.
And now, finally, we get to Messi. THE Lionel Messi. Greatest player in the world. Most would say he is the best dribbler in the world, and I would agree, putting him barely ahead of Ronaldo and Iniesta, who are tied for second. He is also the fastest player, and the best finisher in the game, and that's why he scored 50 goals across all competitions last year. But I am going to take this opportunity to say that, given the choice, I would personally take Ronaldo over Messi. I think Ronaldo is more versatile, and far better with his weaker foot than Messi. Then again, most people would put Messi at #1, and I would be a fool to ignore that. And even if he WERE #2 to Ronaldo...that's still pretty fucking good.
Winner: Barcelona wins this matchup, HOWEVER as a whole, I consider Madrid's offensive package to be more dangerous than Barcelona's.
Josep "Pep" Guardiola took the reigns of Barcelona from Frank Rikjaard in 2008, and has impressed ever since. Never mind that he came in to a team that already had won a Champions League three years prior, it takes a special kind of leadership to win the league title each of your first three years, and Club football's highest honor in two of those three. Pep has done a fantastic job of molding the team to suit it's strengths, employing formations that consistently get the best out of his offense. However, he does have a habit of relying on Messi a bit too much on offense, as well as Puyol on defense. I understand these are the team's best players at each end, but the fact that the whole team plays worse when one is missing or playing poorly, speaks volumes of Guardiola's coaching style.
Jose Mourinho took over Real Madrid in 2010 right after having led Internazionale to a European Championship. I'm an Inter fan myself, but I'll try not to let that influence my decision. And it shouldn't considering Mourinho was already 'the Special One', before he arrived at the San Siro. In 2004 he led Porto, a team most considered mediocre at-best to Champions League glory. He then transferred to Chelsea, and though he was not as successful in the UCL there, he did lead them to three consecutive Premier League titles, at a time when Manchester United were arguably even better than they are now. He spent two seasons at Inter, and in 2010 they became the first Italian side to win 'the Treble', which is to win the domestic cup, league title, and European Championship. In his first season at Madrid, he made several radical changes, including moving Ronaldo to midfield in order to give him more room to work. The result was a career high in goals from CR7 and Madrid's best season in years.
Winner: Mourinho. Pep has been amazing, but Mourinho might be the best coach of all time.
Prediction for Saturday:
Even before the season started, I expected Madrid to finally overtake Barcelona as the best team in football. After watching the first half, I think they already have. Barcelona will start out in great form, but will not be able to comete with Madrid's youth and offensive power.
Real Madrid 3 - 1 Barcelona
Prediction for rest of year:
This is harder, as injury's and transfers could cause serious changes to both teams. However, assuming Madrid's Core starting XI remain intact, I don't think there is a better team in the world right now. They win it all, and Mourinho becomes the first coach to win 3 UCLs with 3 different teams, as well as the first to win 2 Trebles.