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Barcelona, Real Madrid combine present and future in Clasico of fallen giants

Barcelona’s players met for dinner in a Catalan restaurant late on Wednesday night to celebrate Ansu Fati’s new contract and to bond ahead of Sunday’s Clasico against Real Madrid.

The 18-year-old Fati committing himself for another six years carried special significance for Barcelona. 

Despite all the problems they face, one of the most exciting talents in the world had pledged his future, raising hopes he can be the leader of a new generation for many years to come.

More immediately, there was the desire for camaraderie ahead of the visit of Real Madrid at Camp Nou. 

It will be a chance for Barca to regain lost ground in La Liga and to round off an encouraging week that has already seen them beat Valencia and scrape a much-needed Champions League win over Dynamo Kiev.

Those two intertwining threads – navigating the present while nurturing the future – feel like the defining feature of this Clasico, a meeting of two historic clubs, each of them trying to strategise, fix and rebuild while simultaneously flapping their arms just to keep heads above water.

Last summer, in the same restaurant, Barcelona president Joan Laporta met Ronald Koeman to discuss the season ahead. 

Laporta told Koeman he needed two weeks to assess his position as coach, which was taken to mean he would try to find a successor.

But nobody could be found, or at least persuaded, and consequently an awkward, unhappy marriage has continued.

Across from Koeman on Sunday will be Carlo Ancelotti whose appointment by Real Madrid in the summer came as a surprise.   

Ancelotti’s predecessor, Zinedine Zidane, had been fiercely loyal to the club’s hugely successful, but older, generation of players and the expectation was Madrid would plump for a coach with a grander vision, one that was prepared to facilitate change.

Instead, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez turned to Ancelotti, who had already managed the club between 2013 and 2015.

That is not to say Ancelotti and Koeman have not embraced youth. Koeman can take credit for promoting several of the players Barcelona are most excited about including Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Ronald Araujo and Sergino Dest.

Ancelotti has put faith in Miguel Gutierrez at left-back and Eduardo Camavinga in midfield. The 21-year-old Vinicius Junior made his Real Madrid debut in 2018 but under Ancelotti is in the form of his fledgling career.

Gavi might not have been given his chance had Barcelona been able to grant Koeman his wish to sign Georginio Wijnaldum, who chose Paris Saint-Germain. Miguel has seen his route to the Madrid starting line-up shortened by an injury to Ferland Mendy.

There also remains a loyalty to the old guard, a justifiable belief that Gerard Pique at 34 is still Barcelona’s most important defender or that Luka Modric at 36 is still Madrid’s finest midfield playmaker. 

The result on Sunday will be two sides made up of separate generations.

The 17-year-old Gavi may play alongside the 33-year-old Sergio Busquets or the 20-year-old Rodrygo in support of the 33-year-old Karim Benzema.

With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo gone, La Liga is trying to harness the image of Spanish football as the world’s new talent factory and the Clasico – its most marketable fixture – as a window into the future. 

On Twitter, La Liga’s official account asked on Thursday: “Which teenage star are you most excited to watch in #ElClasico?”

And yet there is a conflict there too, with Real Madrid and Barcelona still officially attached to the European Super League, a project based not on encouraging local talent but pocketing financial rewards and attracting bigger television audiences.

Barcelona brand their squad the ‘Dream Teen’ online but Laporta believes the quickest route to financial stability is not Fati or Gavi but a closed-off league, with more games against Liverpool, Manchester United and PSG.

It means whoever wins the Clasico on Sunday will, for a few days, own the narrative, take confidence and momentum, and perhaps plunge their opponents into a period of crisis and doubt. 

But beneath the scrap for points and position and power is a deeper duel, a fight for relevance again and reassurance that better days lie ahead.

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