Karim Benzema (C) of Real Madrid celebrates with Gonzalo Higuain (L) and Christiano Ronaldo (R) after scoring his team's opening goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Granada at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Spanish football may be defined by its marquee fixture, but its best side is not.
The joy/agony/monotony has started early this year. Barcelona and Real Madrid meet for the fourth time this season on Wednesday night. Depending on your perspective (and job), this can be anything from exciting to terrifying. The Copa del Rey quarterfinal first leg, at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu, will be at least the fourth of at least six meetings this season, but such is the supremacy of the two sides that there will surely be one or two more to cause further ecstasy/consternation later in the Champions League season. In short, then, while this may be the first preview you read this season, it will almost certainly not be the last.
Probably true to all of them, will be the narrative of dichotomy. Barcelona, you see, represent all things good; they are art, beauty and truth. Real Madrid are the yang to that ying: science, pragmatism and fallacy. Guardiola is the white wizard, Mourinho the dark lord; Messi a mercurial Potter and Ronaldo a detestable Malfoy. That's the story and the extension is that you can tell a lot about your friends by their Classico preferences.
A Barcelona fan is someone you can trust, an impeccably mannered artisan who'll treat you to several pleasant evenings at the theatre and spend hours doing nothing but kissing and holding your hand: someone to bring home to the parents. A Madrid fan is different, a far more dangerous proposition: great for a fast and feisty animal romp, but likely to wind up disposing of your body down the canal.
So it goes. But it, in fact, is wrong.
Madrid, most of the time are a fascinatingly exciting side with unprecedented potency. With Ronaldo and Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema and the sublime Xabi Alonso, no team moves forward faster or with such devastating virility. Real Madrid play phenomenal football. And they are really exciting to watch. Usually.
The only time this isn't true (although they were poor for 70 minutes against Mallorca on Saturday, before scoring two late goals to maintain their five point lead at the top of La Liga) is when they play Barcelona.
Tiki-taka, as the Catalans' delicate possession play is so sweetly called, brings out the worst in Les Meringues who emerge from each encounter looking like Neanderthals whose understanding of ‘tactics' stretches no further than Cristiano Ronaldo's (admittedly enormous) ego. What Arsene Wenger has called Barcelona's style of ‘sterile domination' is never more sterilizing than when neutralizing their greatest rivals.
Under Mourinho, Madrid's record against Barcelona reads: Played eight; Won one; Drawn three; Lost four. Considered differently (justifiably, given Chelsea-era Mourinho's expressed reluctance to consider extra-time ‘defeats' as defeats), this could be read as four draws and four defeats over eight 90-minute clashes (Real won last season's Copa del Rey final thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's extra-time winner). And this is damaged even further by the fact that two of the draws came in double headers (last season's Champions League semi-final and this season's Supercup) which Madrid lost anyway and the other came when last season's title was all-but Barcelona's already.
Barcelona's incredible success, coated in the sheen of their aesthetically pleasing style, makes it appear that theirs is the only true football and this makes the unsuccessfully destructive impulses of the Madrid machine look bad by comparison. But it is not ‘by comparison' that the true value of Florentino Perez's Mourinho-led Galacticos 2.0 project is to be measured. Pragmatism (and what is Mourinho if not pragmatic?), demands that means be evaluated by the ends they achieve. Viewed on their own terms, Real Madrid (15 wins, one draw and two defeats in La Liga; a perfect six in the Champions League) are phenomenal and are five points closer to the end of the La Liga championship than their great rivals.
In other words, they are not evil and they are well worthy of your respect. Watch them try and beat (and probably beat up) Barcelona tomorrow night, and then watch them eviscerate Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.