Real Madrid are in the odd position of beginning a match against arch-rivals Barcelona as favourites. For the first time since the emergence of the Catalans are the European footballing power, Madrid are looking like they've clawed back enough ground to make things interesting. They're certainly showing their stuff in the league - being three points ahead of Barca with a game in hand in December is a massive improvement over where they were last season, and Madridistas have every hope of ending their title drought this year.
However, for all the talk surrounding Jose Mourinho's men, they've yet to face a particularly stern test. With a relatively straightforward Champions League group, the most difficult game they've had to endure so far this season is Valencia at the Mestalla, a game they came extremely close to blowing. Barcelona, even at the Santiago Bernabeu, are a different kettle of fish.
Over at SB Nation's Barcelona blog, Barca Blaugranes, Arron Duckling senses a chance to prick the Real Madrid bubble. So far this season, Mourinho's side have been better at dispatching minnows than have the defending champions. But ultimately, that's unlikely to mean much. Success and failure for both sides will be depend on the head to head matchups. Last year, these two teams played five times, and despite Madrid coming away with the Copa del Rey, Barcelona smashed them in the league and pipped them to the Champions League final.
We're not going to see five Clasicos again (my fingers hope that's true, at least), but that doesn't make this match any less important. Madrid have yet to prove that they can beat an enemy that's approaching legendary status. Pep Guardiola's team has no such worry. As Arron says, there are unanswered questions, and there's no reason to think that Barcelona will simply roll over:
However, for all [the] talk surrounding Madrid, just when have they faced a team like Barcelona this season? Aside from the Supercopa, they have not. It is all well and good beating teams like Osasuna with 70% possession, but that tells us nothing about the Clasico. Madrid were able to keep possession and as a result they had more chances, which led to more goals and more mistakes I am keen to add.
Just how well will they play with <40% possession? What if Mourinho completely concedes the midfield like he did with Inter? Just how will the team cope with around 20% possession? There are still a lot of question marks around Real Madrid. Is the team still mentally fragile? Will they start to lose their temper if Barcelona go ahead and keep possession?
It's tempting to buy into the vision of Madrid as new and improved, a Jose Mourinho-inspired phoenix rising from the team that was embarrassed 5-0 at the Camp Nou last year to finally give the Catalans a worthy opponent. But before we except that vision of the Spanish and European landscape, we're going to have to see them prove it first.