Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus, it’s been hard to pin down a ‘Clasico duel’ to rival the Portugal star’s battle with Lionel Messi.
We could have one on Wednesday, though, from two pretty unlikely sources.
Ivan Rakitic and Federico Valverde are likely to start at Camp Nou this week, when Spain’s grandest rivalry renews with the LaLiga head-to-head record locked at 72 wins each from 178 meetings (Barca, it’s worth noting, have never been ahead of Madrid in terms of league wins).
Each player has become potentially pivotal for this latest meeting, which is fairly remarkable given their respective standings in the first-team picture when the season got underway in August.
RAKITIC: FROM PARIAH TO PIVOTAL
It looked like Rakitic could well leave Barca this year, even though he didn’t want to.
With two years to run on his contract, it was suspected the player would command a significant fee in the previous transfer window, with Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Inter all linked. With Barca having spent in the region of €758million since recouping a world-record €222m for Neymar, with their wage bill near breaking point and a huge redevelopment of Camp Nou to pay for, a major sale would have been timely.
It would also have reduced the bloated midfield options at Ernesto Valverde’s disposal, while a more cynical observer might suggest selling Rakitic would appease a small but prominent squadron of fans on social media who appear to have taken a disconcertingly severe dislike towards the player and his every appearance for the club.
But Rakitic is settled in Barcelona. His wife and daughters are Spanish. He is a four-time LaLiga champion, a Champions League and Club World Cup winner, a World Cup finalist in 2018 – that’s a CV to stand up to any midfield competition, including Netherlands star Frenkie de Jong, signed in an €86m deal this year.
So, he stayed. But he didn’t play. He started once in 17 games at the beginning of the season, in a 2-0 loss to Granada in September. His banishment from the team left him forlorn enough to go public with his concerns, telling Movistar: “How does my little daughter feel when you take a toy from here? She feels sad. Well, I feel the same. They took my ball. I feel sad.”
And then, three weeks ago, Barca gave it back.
Restored to the starting line-up against Borussia Dortmund, Rakitic excelled in a 3-1 win. He kept his place four days later for the 1-0 victory away to Atletico Madrid, then the 5-2 thrashing of Real Mallorca. He was captain of the much-changed side that finished the Champions League group stage by beating Inter 2-1. The 2-2 draw with Real Sociedad was less impressive, but that was true of every Barca player at Anoeta last weekend.
Statistically, Rakitic does not outstrip his competitors for the midfield three this season in LaLiga. He has two assists, the same as De Jong and Sergio Busquets and one fewer than the injured Arthur. His passing accuracy of 88 per cent is lower than all Barca midfielders except Arturo Vidal; his duel success rate of 47 per cent is better only than Carles Alena’s; his tackle success rate of one in three puts him bottom of the pile.
Yet the fact remains that, right now, Barca play better with him. And they’ll need him against Madrid.
VALVERDE: THE MAN MAKING POGBA POINTLESS
Real Madrid have built their spectacular success of 2014 onwards on a central trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. None of them is now their best midfielder, which tells you just how well Federico Valverde is performing.
Casemiro disrupts the opposition, Kroos controls the tempo and Modric links the play – it’s how Madrid have played throughout Zinedine Zidane’s time in charge. Valverde effectively does all three jobs together. As Zidane said last month, he is “capable of being in every position and with great acceleration”.
After the 3-0 loss to PSG in September – which he missed – the Uruguayan was the change Madrid so sorely needed. He came on against Sevilla to help see out a 1-0 win in their next game. He kept his place for the 2-0 victory over Osasuna and the goalless derby draw with Atletico. He then sat out the game at home to Club Brugge, one Madrid nearly lost.
Valverde’s influence was becoming clear, to fans and Zidane. Since Paris on September 18, Madrid have lost only one match, away to Mallorca on October 19. It is the only game Valverde has missed.
Still only 21, Valverde brings composure, tenacity and technical quality to Madrid’s play. Of their midfielders in LaLiga this season, only Modric, Kroos and Isco have a higher passing accuracy than his 88 per cent. Casemiro and Kroos are the only ones to rank higher for tackles and duels, but he has lost possession on fewer occasions than either of them.
Valverde has also provided two goals and two assists for good measure, something only Modric can better. No wonder the president of his old club Penarol, Jorge Barrera, told AS: “Those of us who met Valverde in the lower ranks of the club are not astonished at what Federico is going through right now. He will continue to grow a lot and is one of the great talents of world football.”
For all of Mino Raiola’s posturing, Zidane’s public praise and Manchester United’s inconsistent form, Paul Pogba looks no closer to joining Madrid than he did in the previous transfer window. If Valverde’s form continues – particularly against Barca, at Camp Nou – they can perhaps forget about Pogba entirely.