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El-No Classico

All too familiar sight

A fixture which name translates as ‘The Classic’, yet now sadly lacks so much of the class it is renowned for.

It is possibly – if not already – the most anticipated match in the footballing calendar with the underlying tension, hatred and jealousy felt between both sides unlike any other.

Add to that the marvellous individual and team talent on show and Spain boasts one of the greatest rivalries on the planet. A spectacle to rival the Superbowl, the World Cup Final, Champions League final and any other ‘big’ game worth mentioning.

The one thing which has struck me most through these two rounds of ‘El Classico’ is the disgusting behaviour of both sides.

It has been petty, nasty, bordering on childlike and has more than taken away from the mesmerising – sometimes fantastical – football which has been played.

Spectators regardless of preference, sat back anticipating some of the finest football the world is ever likely to see. After all, with Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta and Ozil all involved, a salivating pallet is unavoidable.

However, despite moments of individual brilliance – Messi’s solo run and assist for Pedro’s goal plus Alves fine strike – the ugly side of the derby reared its head too many times, not just in the 2nd leg – where the match finished 2-2 – but in the 1st as well.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have always had an intensely contested rivalry between one another.

There have been times when the football has dominated – like Ronaldinho’s famous performance at the Bernabeu in 2005 when his efforts received a standing ovation from the home fans.

In other cases, the rivalry has turned disgusting – the infamous moment when a pigs head was thrown at Madrid’s Luis Figo when he returned to the Camp Nou immediately springs to mind.

Now, it has come full circle.

Combine the emergence of arguably the best football team ever in Guardiola’s Barcelona side, with the appointment of the notoriously controversial Jose Mourinho as Real boss and we were always going to see fireworks.

Barcelona have dominated domestically and on the European stage for the past 6 years winning the Champions League 3 times.

Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi have cemented themselves as the most lethal triumvirate in world football, with the latter possibly the greatest player to have played the game.

Real on the other hand have won a mere 2 trophies in the past 6 years, and in comparison to their great rivals, have struggled to create a brand of football anywhere near the level of Barcelona.

Due to this, Jose Mourinho was hired last summer and in his maiden season he closed the gap, winning a Copa Del Rey title at the hands of Barca but still being pipped to the La Liga and Champions League crowns.

Mourinho is without doubt a world class coach and man manager who was brought in to lead Real Madrid’s grand plans to return to the top of Spanish and European football.

He has success wherever he has gone, unfortunately though that has not quite extended to Real Madrid as of yet.

Finishing second in the League, as well as being knocked out of the Champions League by Barca, Madrid’s rivals have been a source of frustration for Mourinho.

The ridiculous antics shown by Madrid’s players were not unlike the Portuguese managers previous teams, but it is the intent on stifling Barca which is the biggest frustration.

After all they have some of the most lethal attacking weapons in world football: Ronaldo, Ozil, Higuain, Kaka and Alonso can all provide goals and assists with their fast paced, thrusting counter attacks which are put to such great effect out with the El Classico.

Madrid though, are not alone in their trivial displays!

Barcelona may not over exert any physical presence they have, but the way in which they maliciously badger the referee to produce cards for fouls is saddening to watch.

Regardless of whether the fouls deserve punishment or not, they make the referee’s job harder in an already demanding situation.

A prime example of this was a tackle on Lionel Messi from Lassana Diarra late in the first half. After the referee rightly blowing for a foul, the Barca players swiftly proceeded to surround the referee waving imaginary cards, gesturing for a yellow card which would send Diarra off.

It is understandable that players should claim for fouls when they are deserved, but deliberately pressurising the referee in to altering his instant reaction to a foul is not needed.

This incident sparked a quasi-riot involving nearly all the players – a ridiculous outcome to an honest tackle which Diarra, more significantly, did not deny was a foul.

Sergio Ramos displayed a similar gesture when kicking the ball of Messi a yard away from where he was taking a free kick so both sides are just as culpable for the bad behaviour.

This all follows on from the malicious stamp Pepe had on Messi last week, which resulted in the centre back publicly apologising for something which could have easily been avoided in the first place.

What strikes most about the El Classico fixture now though, is that Barcelona and Real Madrid have an intense hatred which is worsening by the game.

Barcelona are quite rightly emerging victorious with their unstoppable play, leading to terrible frustration for Mourinho and his team.

Madrid’s direct ploy to get in the face of Barcelona is wrong, and for most fans and pundits there is a craving for Mourinho to simply attack in the El Classico. As mentioned, they are the side most suitably equipped to play Barcelona at their own game, and win.

The match is now becoming renowned for the scandal rather than the spectacular spectacle it should be.

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Tall-ish Order.

Scotland hoping for more goals against Spain.

Qualifying for Euro 2012 is an outcome which many Scottish fans may have seen as a tall order when the country was placed with superpowers Spain and notoriously difficult teams Czech Republic and Lithuania in their qualifying group, but on the eve of our penultimate qualifier against Lichtenstein, the nation could still achieve this tall order.

Sitting third in the group, with two away fixtures against Lichtenstein and then Spain, Scotland must take full points to have any hope of making the play-offs for the tournament. Couple two wins with a defeat for Czech Republic against Spain tonight and the play-offs is where the country will be, representing a real chance to reach a major international tournament for the first time since 1998. It is a difficult challenge but one which is achievable, so how will Scotland overcome such a challenge?

Firstly, Lichtenstein is a team which Scotland has beaten already in the qualifiers. Albeit unconvincingly, the 2-1 victory went some way to helping the Tartan Army get to this point in qualifying, so the players should approach Saturday’s game with a sense of confidence.

Secondly, arguably Scotland’s best performance of the campaign came in the narrow 3-2 defeat to Spain at Hampden, with only a late Fernando Llorente goal being the difference between the sides. Spain in Alicante is a totally different scenario however and it will take a superhuman performance from the team and the manager to get anything from the game.

Levein has been experimental in this campaign, as well as the friendly matches between qualifiers, and that sense of experiment will not be lost in the next two games. Saturday represents a chance for the manager to test his attacking arsenal without the inclusion of Darren Fletcher and Kenny Miller.

Arguably two of Scotlands best players, both are suffering from slight injuries meaning they won’t be risked in Lichtenstein, but there absence could be seen as a blessing in disguise for players such as David Goodwillie, Craig Mackail-Smith and Barry Bannan.

In Levein’s 4-5-1 formation, there is only space for one lone striker and Mackail-Smith, Goodwillie and possibly Steven Naismith are the only realistic options to lead the line. Scotland have been heavily reliant on Miller’s work rate and mobility in their counter attacking play in this qualifying campaign, and these three players have the capability to try and replicate Miller, albeit they may not have the nack of scoring in big games like the Cardiff striker does.

I wouldn’t be surprised however, if Levein opts for Mackail-Smith in a surprising move, with the Brighton striker in red hot form with 6 goals in 12 games. The 27 year old is the only striker demonstrating this season that he can score regularly, contributing to the reason I would pick him ahead of Goodwillie, despite the Blackburn striker being arguably a better player. That goal threat added to his high work rate and ability to run the channels means he could be an able deputy for Miller against Lichtenstein.

In all Scotland’s tussles’ with the big nations in the past 5 years, we have always had a creative talisman who has bare the brunt of producing the inspiration that Scotland fans crave. In games against France, Holland and Italy, James McFadden produced moments of magic which have been few and far between in this qualifying campaign, however in Aston Villa’s Barry Bannan Scotland now have a man capable of taking this mantle.

Bannan was the star man in Scotland’s win over Lithuania in September, taking on the majority of the creative responsibility before eventually setting up Naismith’s winner late in the game. From then on he has also managed to become a regular in Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa side, contributing to their terrific start.

He is undoubtedly talented, a pocket dynamo capable of the faintest of touches or the fiercest of shots, the closest we have to a player you will see in the Spain squad. Allowing him to express himself and influence games in the final third could prove the key in winning both games.

For the scepticists, Spain may be seen as a game where Scotland should sit in with 11 men behind the ball, soaking up pressure before hitting long balls in to the channels for Kenny Miller to chase down, but I see the game as more than that. Levein must approach the game unlike everyone else and look to attack Spain in their weakest area, which I feel is in defence.

Spain dominate games through keeping the ball and through that possession, world class attacking players such as Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Torres and Pedro put teams to the sword, but in defence there are areas Scotland can exploit, if they are brave enough to go and attack them.

At left back, Spain have no recognised encumbent of this position after the demise of the reliable Joan Capdevila, so the right sided Alvaro Arbeloa may find himself there. At centre half, the partnership of Pique and Puyol is formidable, but one which has seen its best days. Finally, Sergio Ramos is a top quality right back, but again when defending can sometimes be rash and error prone.

I understand Scotland may not have all the players to exploit the weaknesses I see in the Spain squad, but with the dangerous players they have, it is up to Levein to allow them to attack Spain to try and achieve something, rather than sit in scared and wait for them to hurt us. A draw is simply not enough.

Scotland must first hope that Spain do them a favour on Friday night, then either have an off day or rest there stars for the final qualifier on Tuesday. It is time for the country to believe, hopefully providing the impetus and inspiration for the national team to pull off the unlikeliest of results.