The Clasico is always billed as a blockbuster. It’s usually a thriller, occasionally a horror story for one of the two sides. But this Saturday, with 99,000 empty seats, it will feel more like a silent movie, and a very strange one at that.
Rarely have both clubs come into the fixture in so much turmoil. Madrid are in pieces on the pitch after two of their worst performances under Zinedine Zidane. And Barcelona are in bits off it with boardroom dramas a constant in the Catalan capital.
Madrid are suffering off the pitch too, in as much as they share Barcelona’s financial concerns. And not everything is perfect on the field for Barca who slipped up last weekend away to Getafe, making it the first day in which both of the big two had lost without scoring since 2000.
It was in May of the 1999-2000 season that Barca lost 2-0 to Rayo Vallecano while Real Madrid were beaten 1-0 by Alaves. The Clasicos that season ended 3-0 to Real Madrid and 2-2. Deportivo won the league.
There is a feeling that ‘someone else’ could win the league this season too if Madrid continue to stumble and Barcelona buckle under the weight of boardroom upheaval.
After losing 3-2 to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, Madrid media speculated over who would have been jeered the most had the defeat taken place in a full Santiago Bernabeu.
‘Heading for Europa League’ read one sarcastic headline. In this group that is maybe not beyond the realms of possibility for Real Madrid.
One columnist accused Zidane of picking the team by just throwing oranges in the air and seeing where they land. He is currently not helped by injuries to Eden Hazard and Martin Odegaard who were meant to make a difference at the end of a summer marked by the absence of signings for the first time in 20 years, but there has been a ‘lucky dip’ element to his XIs with wild switches from two wingers in a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 with no wingers.
On Wednesday night he benched Vinicius and Benzema even though Madrid were missing their captain at the other end of the pitch.
Much was made of the chaos that always ensues when Sergio Ramos is missing and it’s true that Madrid have lost to Manchester City and Ajax, Juventus and PSG without him but he was there in the first half at the weekend and it was his mistake which led to Cadiz’s goal, so this is not just about one important player missing.
Barcelona’s problems on the pitch seem far smaller. What to do with Griezmann is currently Koeman’s biggest headache. How Madrid would love to have the Frenchman in their team. Barcelona’s cast of a thousand forwards (Messi, Ansu Fati, Dembele, Pedri, Francisco Trincao) might lack a centre-forward but it beats Madrid’s depleted troupe hands down right now.
That’s the most striking thing about this Madrid team – there is nothing to excite and nothing to rely on. At this juncture the £163m (180m euros) on Hazard and Luka Jovic looks to have been money badly spent.
The young Brazilians Vinicius and Rodrigo Goes are not progressing sufficiently under Zinedine Zidane and with Marco Asensio unable to make a consistent impact on games, it’s a Madrid team that no longer frightens opposition defences.
While things are currently not as bad on the pitch for Barcelona, off it the club continues to stumble from one drama to the next. There is a projected £271m (300m euros) shortfall in revenue this season that can only be tackled by big cuts in the wage bill.
The tactic of persuading players to, in effect, receive the same amount of money but over a longer period has worked with Frenkie de Jong, Gerard Pique, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Clement Lenglet who have all extended contracts, but not, so far, with others.
Meanwhile, a petition to force a referendum on whether the board should be able to see out their term of office until March 2021, one that needed 16,500 names, gathered over 20,000.
Only the problems of how to stage the referendum during a pandemic can now delay the president being dumped before December with elections in January.
Madrid are not showing the same overt signs of chaos but they are also bracing themselves for a huge drop in revenue.
The big two in Spain make more money from football tourism and full stadiums than, arguably, any club in Europe and nothing like a Clasico behind closed doors will remind them of what they are currently missing out on.
Never before has the fixture taken place without fans – every groan from the technical area will be heard. Koeman knows only about playing against Madrid. He was victorious six times with three draws and five defeats during his career.
Zinedine Zidane has never lost at the Nou Camp as a coach with two wins and three draws to date. His position will be under greater scrutiny than ever if he slips us this time.
A gentle campaign around Real Madrid Castilla coach Raul being his replacement-in-waiting has already started to pick up speed. It will find another gear on Saturday if Real Madrid lose the weirdest of Clasicos.