Heading in to the first El Clasico of the 2011/12 La Liga season, there is the feeling that this might finally be the year Real Madrid topples Barcelona after the Catalan side has dominated the league for the past three seasons. Madrid can offer whatever reasoning they want behind the hiring of Jose Mourinho but taking Los Blancos back to the top of Spain is the reason the Special One is in Madrid.
Through the first three-plus months of the season, it certainly appears that Mourinho's plan is working as Madrid sits atop La Liga with a three point lead and a game in hand over their bitter rivals. It may not seem like a lot but considering the way these two clubs have dominated the rest of the league over the past years, what is essentially a six point gap is fairly large. So the question becomes, what is different this season? Has Mourinho finally got over on Pep Guardiola or is Madrid's current position have more to do with Barca's apparent struggles.
Looking at the raw numbers, it appears that Barcelona is doing just fine, but something just doesn't feel right. It's a testament to the success they've had over the past few seasons that one can even make a case that they might actually be struggling a bit this season. It's a complex case because the monopoly on success that Madrid and Barca have in La Liga is basically unprecedented in football.
After 15 league matches, the Blaugranas have 10 wins, four draws and one loss. At the same point last season, they were 13-1-1. Three more draws may not seem like a big difference but considering that Barca hasn't had more than six draws in a season since 2007/08 (the last time Madrid won the league) it's certainly an alarming stat. That's how close things have been between the two Spanish giants over the past few seasons.
In terms of goal production, Barcelona is actually putting the ball in the net at a higher rate than last season, 47 goals against 38 last season after 15 matches, so clearly that's not the issue. Maybe it's the defense? Nope, seven goals allowed so far this season against eight last season.
Still something isn't quite right, or at least it seems that way which is admittedly extremely odd. It's not often we're driven to criticize a team that has only lost once in nearly four months and has a goal differential of +40. There are plenty of teams across the world that would given their left arms, and possibly more, to have that kind of success but it's not good enough for Barcelona because they aren't in first place. That's simply the expectation.
Want another example of how slim the margin of error is for Barcelona? Guardiola's side has given up two goals in a match twice already this season, they only did that once through the entire 10/11 La Liga campaign. That's practically a defensive meltdown and at the same time to criticize it is borderline insanity. Yet we have to, because that's how close things are.
So what is going on?
While Barcelona has been strong, but maybe not as sharp as we're used to, Real Madrid is having a tremendous season.
Los Blancos have played 14 matches this year and comparing their results from the first 14 matches of last season, it's easy to see the difference. 47 goals scored against 40 last season and one more win. Add in Madrid's efficient destruction of their Champions League group and Mourinho's men are on track for a potentially historic season. Of course all that could be derailed come this weekend if Madrid can't get a result at home against Barca.
The razor thin line between success and failure goes both way in Spain and the potential fallout from Saturday's match is magnified due to the massive financial investment made by both the clubs. That said, you still get the feeling that Madrid has more to lose than Barcelona this weekend. Sure, there would be disappointment amongst the team and fans alike (nobody likes losing to their rival) but the pressure to get the better of this match-up is squarely on Madrid given recent results.
In a battle between two teams as close as Madrid and Barcelon` a are, it's the little things that make the difference between winning the league and finishing second, especially since finishing third simply isn't an acceptable alternative. It also underlines the importance of their clubs' first meeting on Saturday at the Bernabéu. A victory by Madrid gives them what amounts to a nine point advantage and given Madrid's form so far this season, that could be an insurmountable difference even for a team as talented as Barcelona.
Whether you're looking forward to this latest installment of El Clasico or you're still burnt out from last season's plethora of meetings, you have to admit that there are some interesting plot lines for Saturday's clash.
For more on the two teams, head over to Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid and FC Barcelona blog Barca Blaugranes. Check out SB Nation Soccer for coverage of Real and Barca's Champions League matches this week. For more from around the world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on twitter.