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Heart Of Football

Big Apple to look on as Barca confront crunch time

The organisers of the 234th El Clasico think they know their world markets. But they don't know Singapore.

With great fanfare, the Spanish league, Real Madrid and Barcelona announced that tonight's big game at the Bernabeu will be screened from the rooftops of New York City - live in real time on the terrace of 230 Fifth Avenue.

There will be space for 3,000 fans and a giant screen provided by beIN Sports.

Great PR, but why couldn't they do that in Singapore?

Ok, there's a time difference to take into consideration. The 8.45pm Madrid kick-off falls comfortably into mid-afternoon in the Big Apple, and not so convenient in the Republic, where it will be 2.45 on Monday morning.

But that's where I think (I absolutely know) the Spaniards have no idea of the mindset of Singaporeans. There would, easily, be 10,000 people who would go out to the Sports Hub at that hour to watch in a communal atmosphere rather than pay to view on StarHub.

Maybe next time.

Except that there may not be quite so meaningful a Clasico in the foreseeable future.

We know already that this is the final time that Luis Enrique will coach Barca in the big one.

We can see that it is boom or bust for Barcelona this time because, should they lose the game that they won 4-0 last time in the Bernabeu, they will effectively hand over the LaLiga title to the enemy. Rob Hughes

We can see that it is boom or bust for Barcelona this time because, should they lose the game that they won 4-0 last time in the Bernabeu, they will effectively hand over the LaLiga title to the enemy.

It's a curious thing because over the past decade Barca has had the whip hand (in domestic football) when it came to these almighty contests.

When La Masia academy was flourishing, Barcelona could put out almost any side it wanted to, and usually get the result in the capital. The full record shows that Barca has won 93 Clasicos, Madrid 91, with 49 drawn.

Barcelona has even dared to win seven of the last 13 visits to the Bernabeu, sometimes by a humiliating margin.

The boot might be on the other foot now. Both Spanish heavyweights are coming off huge midweek results in the Champions League - Barcelona was eliminated by Juventus and Real went through in extra time in a controversial knuckle fight against Bayern Munich.

Lionel Messi crashed to earth, literally, against Juventus and finished up with his cheekbone swollen and blooded like a boxer's. He played deeper and deeper in the Barca team, trying to find space, trying to spark counter-attacks.

Cristiano Ronaldo did little of that. This may be a season when age is beginning to tap Ronaldo on the shoulder, yet he came up with a hat-trick against Bayern. The match officials helped with that and seemingly CR7 could have strayed as far offside as he wished without being ruled out.

Nevertheless, his team coach Zinedine Zidane was able to say: "I don't know if there's a category for him. The goals, the way Cristiano finishes them in such important moments... he's always there when there's an important occasion."

Zidane was a big game player. And he is saying that big game winners come no bigger than Ronaldo.

What is more, as coach, Zizou has been able to rest his star performer in between the games that matter. Indeed, this is where Real Madrid has the key advantages.

Last weekend, Zidane was able to field virtually an entire second string and still eke out three points against Sporting Gijon. It helps when you have the likes of James Rodrigues, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Alvaro Morata and Isco bursting to show their pedigree and to take their chances when Zidane calls upon them.

And it has to hurt in Barcelona when Isco, a reserve who has scored as many goals this season as Karim Benzema and more than Gareth Bale, puts out photographs online of himself and his pet dog.

The hound is called Messi.

But, seriously, the accumulation of reserves who can fit into the shoes and maintain the unbeaten run of Real Madrid is a mighty contrast to Barcelona.

There, whenever Enrique makes three or four changes, the momentum seems lost.

Barca's over-reliance on the trident - Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar - is magical when they are on song. But Suarez hasn't been at his best for months now, and Neymar has oscillated from sheer wonder to fitful petulance.

Neymar is banned from the Clasico because of what he said to an assistant referee after being sent off. He has the ability to be what he wants to be, the next Messi. But he can also be crass, and harmful to Barcelona's cause as tonight could demonstrate.

Much more is wrong with Barcelona. Enrique's choice of recruits, assuming he had his say after winning the treble in his first season as coach, has fallen short.

Andre Gomes and Arda Turan cannot compare with the mastery of Xavi Hernandez and the fabulous, but ageing, Andres Iniesta.

That, as much as anything, explains Messi dropping deep.

Paco Alcacer came to Barcelona with a fine scoring reputation, but on the few chances that he gets looks nothing like as potent as Morata does for Real.

Moreover, Enrique's attempts to quicken up the transition between defence and attack, bypassing the midfield that since Johan Cruyff's times has been Barca's raison d'etre, have looked a staccato apology for Barcelona's lost lyricism.

Enrique is that rare animal who played on winning sides for Real Madrid (1991-96) and Barcelona (1996-2004).

Yet his tactical switch between Barcelona's 4-3-3 to attempt 3-4-3 has disrupted his own team more than opposing sides. Messi, Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba clearly are not happy with it.

And Dani Alves, the right-back whom Barcelona let go, returned to the Camp Nou as part of the Juventus side that knocked the Catalan team out of Europe.

Soon, Enrique will be history at Barcelona, and the club will spend a fortune trying to recapture its own culture.

Meantime, on Fifth Avenue, Barcelona will remind people that Sunday is St Jordi's Day. St Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia, just as this Roman soldier is said to have slain the dragon as England's Saint George.

Whichever side he was on, it might take more than myth to win the battle of the Bernabeu.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Big Apple to look on as Barca confront crunch time'. Print Edition | Subscribe