Soccer buffs everywhere focused on ‘El Clasico’

For the most part, the North American sports fan currently is paying attention to the opening-round games in the NHL and NBA post-seasons, along with the start of the baseball season and the ongoing saga that is the NFL lockout.
However, those four sports fail to match the world-wide hyperbole that’s currently building in regards to the “El Clasico” [The Classic in English] derby between Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, as the two soccer giants are playing four times in an 18-day span.
Following last Saturday’s 1-1 draw in league play, and today’s Copa Del Rey [The King’s Cup] final, the stage will be set for the two-legged Champions League semi-final between the two squads, which will take place next Wednesday afternoon and again on Tuesday, May 3.
“To see two massive teams going head-to-head in league play, a domestic cup final, and then over two legs in the Champions League is unprecedented,” said Kristian Jack, who has covered the game since 1997 and currently works for The Score as an analyst for “The Footy Show.”
“It was a huge deal at the start of the season when both teams played what’s being dubbed ‘El Clasico I’, where Barcelona defeated Real Madrid 5-0,” Jack noted.
“And now with them playing again, it makes it extremely compelling for those not only in Spain but around the world, as well,” he added.
While it may not carry the same weight as it does over in Europe, interest is starting to build here in Canada over what will happen during the next two weeks, with Muskie boys’ soccer coach Shane Beckett being an interested observer.
“When you’re playing against your number-one rival that often in a short amount of time, it’s going to be similar to a playoff hockey game when they get to the second leg of the semi-finals,” he reasoned.
When it comes to the Champions League, an annual competition that occurs between the top clubs throughout Europe, Jack can’t recall a match-up between two sides that has been this hyped before the actual championship game.
“What you’ve got here is a Barcelona side that everyone wants to watch play, and one that many are starting to give the title as one of the greatest teams to have ever played the game,” he remarked.
“But I believe they have to win the Champions League this year to be put alongside the likes of the Liverpools and the AC Milans of the 1980s,” he stressed.
“But who’s standing in their way? It’s their old rival, Real Madrid, who have one of the best managers in the game in Jose Mourinho, who already has his name on the trophy twice,” Jack added.
“With so many incredible and compelling storylines like that, it’s going to be fascinating to watch.”
Another one of those big storylines will be the match-up of the last two Ballon d’Or recipients, given to the top player in all of Europe, between Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
Ronaldo, who is from Portugal, burst onto the scene with Manchester United and won the Ballon d’Or in 2008 with the English club. He then made the move to Madrid in the summer of 2009 in an astonishing $132 million (U.S.) transfer deal.
Since then, however, the 26-year-old Ronaldo has been overshadowed by the Argentinean Messi, who has captured the last two Ballon d’Ors and is starting to be discussed among the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona at just 23 years of age.
“It was only a couple of years ago that we were calling Ronaldo the best player in the world, and I don’t think we’ve seen any regression in his play as I still think he’s far and away one of the best players in the game today,” said Jack.
“And I personally think he’s playing even better than he was two years ago.
“So why are we not giving him that title of the best player in the world? It’s because we’re seeing arguably one of the greatest players of a generation in Messi, and not just because his phenomenal goal-scoring record is better than Ronaldo’s [49 for Messi this season compared to only 41 for Ronaldo],” Jack added.
“It’s also due to the fact that he does a lot more than that for his team.”
The fact that two of the best players and teams in the world are going head-to-head isn’t lost upon Muskie girls’ head coach Sarah Noonan, who hopes to utilize the footage from the upcoming set of matches to help explain aspects of the game to her team—and also get them excited about the sport.
“Typically not a lot of girls in high school sit down to watch soccer on TV, so a match-up such as this is good to help expose them to that,” she explained.
“During some of the upcoming bus rides during our season, I’m hoping to play some of these matches on a DVD and to have the girls watch a little bit of them to help them get engaged in the sport,” she added.
“Just by watching the game, you can learn a lot,” Noonan reasoned. “And you tend to get pumped up and excited by watching the top teams play, and you end up going, ‘Oh my gosh, look at what these players can do.’”
So why should the general sports fan care about the upcoming “El Clasico” matches, especially if they find soccer to be extremely boring? According to Jack, the stereotypes that many fans of other sports throw towards the “beautiful game” will be blown out the window just by watching the two Spanish squads play.
“People who don’t follow the game as much sometimes point to the fact that it’s quite slow, not very entertaining, and that there isn’t a lot of scoring,” conceded Jack, who will be spending the first half of tonight’s “Footy Show” discussing “El Clasico.”
“When you watch a team like Barcelona, I don’t think it’s possible for any sports fan to be bored by them because they’re a team that controls the ball with a lot of passing and movement, and they’ll be going head-to-head with one of the greatest clubs of all time in Real Madrid,” he enthused.
“You’re going to see entertaining football, you’re going to see goals, and you’re going to see a number of world-class greats in Messi, Ronaldo, David Villa, and Xavi in these games, so I don’t think anybody will be disappointed in watching these two play.”
Which leads to the important question, who is going to win the Champions League semi-final and advance to next month’s final at Wembley Stadium in London, where the winner of the other semi-final match between English giants Manchester United and Germany’s cinderella side Schalke await?
If you ask both Muskie coaches, they feel quite strongly that Barcelona is the favourite to go through. Jack, however, believes Real Madrid may pull off the upset.
“At the moment, I still think Barcelona looks like the stronger side, but I have a sneaking feeling that Real Madrid is going to win in the semis,” he remarked.
“I think it really helps to be playing Barcelona so many times in this stretch because if you only play a team like that once in a while, you may might not have a chance of winning,” Jack said.
“But when you see them as often as they are at the moment, you have a much stronger chance of pulling off the upset,” he reasoned.

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