I already made this joke. In my preview of this weekend's games over on SBNation.com/soccer, I referenced the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where Pippin and Gandalf are sitting on a balcony in Minas Tirith surveying the quickly darkening sky. It's the night before the epic battle with the forces of evil, but it's eerily quiet, calm."It's the deep breath before the plunge," Gandalf says quietly.
I said in my article that this was pretty much how the whole Liga felt incarnate. Not much happening, everyone gearing up for the great battle ahead. And while I think that applies broadly, the emphasis, of course, is on Real Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid host old nemesis Sporting Gijón tonight at the Bernabéu (20:00 CET), while Guardiola and company travel to Valencia to take on Levante (22:00 CET). On the surface, neither game seems that pause-worthy: Madrid should be able to take care of a reeling Sporting side that hasn't been the same since beloved coach Preciado was fired. And Barcelona should have little issue overcoming Levante.
But we know that's easier said than done. Sporting are in the middle of a fight to avoid relegation, and have gotten the better of Real Madrid in the past (remember last year?), while Levante have come on strong all year, and are noted for their hyper-physical defensive play, which could frustrate Barcelona all evening. It certainly won't be a cakewalk.Most pundits are already set to start talking about next weekend's Clásico. They've declared victory for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and are prepared to hyper-hype the most recent edition of Mourinho vs. Guardiola (or, if you ask any Barcelona fan, rich vs. poor, evil vs. good, opressor vs. oppressed, fascist vs. patriot...am I missing any?).
You now who isn't ready to move on? Our old friend Manolo Preciado, who firmly believes his side can repeat last season's 0-1 victory: "You never know in football. Everything is pointing to a Madrid victory...but look at what happened last season." Sage words from a long-suffering bottle-hurling coach.
Listen. It's true: most things suggest a Madrid win tonight, despite the fact that the team has been playing mediocrely of late. They're a much better side than Sporting, in talent and tactics. They're probably going to want it more, considering how much Cristiano Ronaldo (among others) cares about beating Barcelona (you'd be genuinely insane to question CR7's resolve here. He has put the team on his back countless times this season. If you're a Madrid fan who dislikes him, you at least have to respect what he has done for our club this year--he cares. With all his heart. /endrant).
The main danger Sporting possess is a strong defensive presence, coupled with a relatively explosive counter-attack. Unfortunately, both of those attributes were stronger last season, their best with Preciado. Now, they've looked stagnant on offense, and have given up more than their share of silly goals on defense. They're no longer a gaunt defensive team who Madrid would be happy to beat 1-0. Now, they're a bit more off-and-on, a side that is very beatable, and will give Madrid chances; the question, as always, is whether Cristiano and company will take them.