More than a game
After a week of drama at Real Madrid, Guillem brings you the inside line ahead of football's biggest grudge match.
Last Updated: 12/12/08 9:22am
The build-up to El Clasico could hardly have been more dramatic.
Real Madrid pulled the plug on Bernd Schuster's reign after successive league defeats - a decision surprising in its timing if nothing else - and handed Juande Ramos a coaching lifeline following his untimely demise at Tottenham.
So just what happened in the Bernabeu corridors of power? And can Ramos revive his reputation at Real?
Sky Sports' Spanish football expert Guillem Balague has all the answers and - as if you needed telling - gives you five reasons to tune into Saturday's Camp Nou cracker.
FIVE REASONS WHY SCHUSTER HAD TO GO
Relationship with Mijatovic
The fact is, Schuster rarely saw eye to eye with Real's sporting director Pedja Mijatovic, and their conflicting positions on transfers were frequently apparent for all the world to see. Schuster would talk openly of the need for signings to be made in certain positions, only for Mijatovic to dismiss them as unnecessary; Mijatovic would publicly declare his admiration for a certain player, only for Schuster to come out and say that the player would not fit in with his style. Schuster felt undermined by Mijatovic and the sporting director never really believed that the German was the right man for the job. In the end, Mijatovic, still the man taking all the sporting decisions, decided enough was enough and met Schuster, who agreed he had had enough too.
Relationship with the press
In an ideal world, perhaps it shouldn't matter what the press thinks of you, but the reality is that without the Spanish media on his side Schuster's days were numbered. Towards the end of his tenure there was little or no sympathy for the German, and he can only really blame himself for the fact that there was next to no one willing to fight his corner. His press conferences were unbelievably short, his answers became limited to an irritable 'yes' or 'no', he was abrasive, ill-tempered, and when he saw an opportunity to intimidate or humiliate a journalist he took it. At the end, when he did give answers to questions, he went out of his way to give the response that nobody in Madrid wanted to hear: like telling the world that Real Madrid could not possibly beat Barcelona. It may have been gamesmanship, but subtlety was never his strong point.
He wanted to go
Coming out with statements like the one above proves Schuster knew what he was doing. He knew his words and deeds in recent weeks would go down very badly with the fans, the media and the club and he could not have made it any more obvious that he wanted to get the sack. Curiously, the only person willing to defend him was the club president Ramon Calderon, but Schuster gave him little choice. When the time came, Schuster and Mijatovic agreed his pay-off on Monday, before Calderon had even been informed of the details.
He'd lost the players
How often have we heard that? It's become something of a cliché and it comes out every time a coach is dismissed. It is also true, however, and the biggest club in the world is no different to any other when it comes to the relationship between a manager and his players. No coach can survive once the players stop playing for him and the leaders in the dressing room have turned against him, and when one of those players is Raul Gonzalez and the club in question is Real Madrid then the manager's days are truly numbered. Want to know how long a Madrid coach is going to last? Look at his relationship with the influential club captain. There were two recent clues: firstly, Schuster recently confided in someone that Raul was like a cancer in the dressing room and, whether he was in the right wrong, you knew then that it was only a matter of time. Secondly, two months ago Raul sat down for dinner with a highly regarded and available Spanish coach....Juande Ramos.
The pressure got to him
If the players had lost faith in their coach, they can hardly be blamed. When things started to go wrong, Schuster looked like a man who could not care less about what happened to his team. On top of publicly writing the players off in press conferences, he failed to attend recent training sessions, he didn't give tactical instructions form the bench and spent games looking utterly resigned to his fate. He had given up communicating with his players and when they looked to him for inspiration, he had the air of a thoroughly broken man, rather than a leader.
FIVE THINGS RAMOS CAN GIVE REAL
This will be his immediate impact. He will keep things simple and give his players clear, direct instructions. After the last couple of confusing months under Schuster, Juande will focused on getting back to basics and doing the simple things well.
In the last few months Schuster even failed to turn up for some key sessions. Juande will make a significant improvement on the training ground. His fitness coach and assistant, Marcos Alvarez, will take care of everything in terms of conditioning the players; the previous incumbent in that role - Walter di Salvo - under whom Real suffered an unacceptable plague of muscle injuries, will be sidelined. At Sevilla Ramos created a side that sent shockwaves around Spain and Europe because of its superior fitness, stamina and conditioning. Even at Tottenham, Juande's critics would concede that he forged a side that looked leaner and sharper than anyone had seen them looking before. It will be no different at Real.
Impact during games
Juande will make an immediate impact on matches with his tactical decision-making and substitutions. He will be an improvement on Schuster who, especially toward the end of his tenure, looked on helplessly from the sidelines - more like a spectator than a coach. Juande will read the game, make decisions and act upon them. Sometimes they may not come off, but often they will be enough to turn a match. Remember his decision to swap Pascal Chimbonda for Tom Huddlestone in the Carling Cup final at Wembley?
Use of the cantera
Unlike his predecessors, Juande will make full use of the enormous talent at his disposal within the club's youth and reserve team ranks. In recent seasons, Real have allowed an unbelievable number of home-grown players to slip through their grasp while spending heavily. There are enough Graneros, Negredos and Soldados plying their trade around La Liga to make a pretty decent side. Juande is not afraid to promote young players from within - he did it at Sevilla and he knows how important it is for a club to develop its own talented core of players who have empathy with the cause. There is, of course, no finer example of this than at FC Barcelona: a club with the finest youth set up in the world and where Juande once worked.
A better image
Juande will provide an all-round improvement on the image of the club after months of Schuster's abrasive and alienating performances at press conferences and media events. The German had few friends in the media at the end, but Juande will get a great deal more sympathy, regardless of results. The image on the bench will improve quite literally as well - no more of Schuster's resigned and indifferent performances slouched into his coat. Ramos will lead from the touchline, providing instruction, leadership and motivation.
FIVE REASONS TO WATCH EL CLASICO
Have you seen Barca lately?
Statistics don't always tell the whole story, but on this occasion they speak for themselves: unbeaten in the league since the opening day of the season, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona have conceded just nine goals in 14 games, while the free-scoring attack has netted 44 goals already. And they are playing well when it really matters. Their recent run of games was supposed to be a test of their credentials: a trip to Sevilla? No problem, 3-0 and adios; a visit from Valencia, a side who had conceded just three league goals away from home all season? 4-0 and thank you very much. Even Thierry Henry, a player who is supposed to be having a miserable time, is gatecrashing the party and going home with a hat-trick. They are a joy to watch at the moment, and they will be looking for revenge after being made to form a guard of honour at the Bernabeu last season.
Beware the wounded animal
Another cliché, I know, but as Joan Laporta warned me in an interview with him this week: this is still Real Madrid and they are hurting at the moment. The Madrid players may have stopped playing for Schuster, but under a new coach and with their pride at stake, they will be fighting for their lives. The whole world will be watching this one and, whoever takes to the field on the night, there will still be 11 very, very good players wearing white - each one of them capable of hurting the opposition.Lionel Messi - and the rest
We've been saying it for weeks: on current form, Messi is the best player in the worldand the stage is set for a big performance from the little Argentinian wizard. He has been absolutely devastating in recent weeks and if there is any lingering doubt as to just how good he is, the true test of a player is how he performs in the really big games. When it has really mattered in recent weeks, Messi has delivered. Of his nine league goals, you will struggle to see two better than his brace in the vital match against Sevilla a fortnight ago. He is unfazed by the occasion - and there is none bigger than FC Barcelona versus Real Madrid. And if watching Messi wasn't worth the price of admission alone, there are plenty of other fascinating sub-plots to keep us hooked: the passing of Xavi; the pace, power and finishing of Eto'o; the burgeoning talent of Alves, the best right back in the game; the development and progression of Higuain; an opportunity for Casillas to regain his form and silence his doubters; and, of course, Ramos' La Liga debut.
Two presidents, one box
I've chatted with both presidents this week and both men are respectful of each other. It hasn't always been that way and, more often than not, former presidents of Barcelona and Real have refused even to acknowledge each other, let alone speak. Laporta and Calderon have even been counselling each other over the last couple of seasons as each one of them has gone through their respective highs and lows - yet somehow that makes the relationship all the more intriguing for those of us looking on. On Saturday they'll be sat side-by-side in the directors' box - something that many previous presidents have refused to do - and the world gets to look on as they try to mask their emotions while all the time trying to act respectfully to the other. Who has the best poker face on the night?
This is Barca-Real
What else is there left to say? This is Barca-Real after all. As Laporta said in our interview this week, there is no other sporting spectacle like it in the world. More clichés? Why not. This is more than a game. This is the ultimate grudge match. This is history. A clash of the Titans. For everyone in Spain it represents a variety of conflicting symbols: two nations; two great sporting institutions; two worldviews; two philosophies or even just two football teams. Wherever you come from, it means something different, but wherever you are, it matters.