The exhausting existence of Barcelona, Real Madrid in Spain's Perpetual Crisis Machine
This was supposed to be the undoing of Barcelona's dynasty. It was January and they said it was a time of crisis. A 1-0 Jan. 4 loss at Real Sociedad was Barca's third league defeat of the year. Manager Luis Enrique, in his first year back at the club since starring as a player, was allegedly at loggerheads with Lionel Messi over his refusal to coddle his superstar.
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Sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was fired – and his assistant, the recently retired club icon Carles Puyol, had quit as a gesture of support – largely because the club's two-window transfer ban had been upheld upon appeal. (It probably didn't help that Zubizarreta, a former club goalkeeper and captain, blamed club president Josep Bartomeu for the debacle.)
Messi had been benched against Sociedad – as had Neymar, Dani Alves and Gerard Pique – and skipped practice the next day citing stomach issues, a common fib told by players and clubs when there's something bigger going on. Difficult questions were asked about Luis Enrique's more direct tactics, management style and squad rotation policy. Bartomeu promised to move up club presidential elections to this summer.
[FC Yahoo: Just Messi being Messi and City being City in Barcelona's 1-0 win]
"CRISIS TOTAL!" bellowed the front page of Sport, one of the Catalan sports dailies.
But then Barcelona won nine of its next 10 games in the league by a 37-8 scoring margin and swept into the Copa del Rey final by beating Elche, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal over two legs each and suddenly everything was just dandy.
A head had rolled and then the train sped on. Barca fairly well destroyed Manchester City in the round of 16 of the Champions League, even though it won both games by a mere goal, understating its dominance and leading many to wonder if Barcelona was playing as well as ever. Messi has scored 22 times since the so-called "crisis" including three hat tricks.
Real Madrid, Barca's opponent in the second and final Clasico of the season in Catalonia on Sunday, is now in a crisis of its own. Real won the first Clasico 3-1 in Madrid on Oct. 25, having overcome a fourth-minute Neymar goal. But the most expensively assembled side of all time – by some distance – started March with a tie against Villarreal and a loss at Athletic Bilbao. That was followed by a dire 4-3 loss in the Champions League against Schalke, meaning Real Madrid only just survived the round of 16 in its European title defense, on account of its 2-0 win in the first leg.
Presently, manager Carlo Ancelotti could well be a single bad game from losing his job. The famous white handkerchiefs have come out and been waved by the fans, a traditional demonstration of a loss of confidence by the socios, the club members who hold real power by electing the club president. Meanwhile, of the co-most expensive players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo is cranky again and Gareth Bale has misplaced his form. President Florentino Perez called a press conference just to say that he maintained confidence in Ancelotti.
It wasn't Real's first crisis of the year.
In September, Real Madrid lost two of its first three league games. It was the first time in 30 years that the club found itself six points behind the league leaders three games into the year, Mundo Deportivo, another sports tabloid, pointed out. "CRISIS" shouted its front page.
And in January, Real was beaten by crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid over two legs in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey. Then, on February 7, Atletico beat them again – a 4-0 walloping in the league after which Ronaldo had a big bash to celebrate his 30th birthday, which became fodder for more tabloid hysterics.
Another so-called crisis.
"The crisis was just the loss of one match," midfielder Toni Kroos told a German TV station. "Lots of clubs would like to have a crisis like that."
But crisis seems to be the unchanging state of Spain's soccer duopoly. Both teams lurch from one so-called scandal or emergency to the next. The next meltdown is forever nigh.
The Spanish media, and the sports media in particular – which cares little about anything but soccer – would appear to be at least complicit in this strange phenomenon, if not outright culpable for it. The Marca and AS sports dailies in Madrid, both loyal to Real, and Sport and Mundo Deportivo, beholden to Barca (Sport's slogan, in fact, is "Always With Barca") cater to an insatiable appetite for coverage of Spain's two juggernauts.
Historically, these papers have dedicated dozens of pages to their respective clubs every day. Dozens. Every single day. There isn't a club in the world that generates enough news to justify that many column inches – nor does any entity in any other field, for that matter. Yet there are pages to fill and papers to sell. So faint or imagined dots are connected and crises contrived.
Call it the Perpetual Crisis Machine, if you will.
It must be totally and utterly exhausting to be trapped in this maelstrom of manufactured drama for more than a few years. It's no surprise that, after four seasons, Pep Guardiola quit as Barcelona's manager in spite of having just overseen one of the all-time great runs in club soccer, citing fatigue. He took a year-long sabbatical just to get over that burnout.
The pressure and scrutiny is total and eternal.
On Sunday, the archrivals meet again. Barcelona remains between crises at the moment and Real Madrid is now deeply mired in one. There seems to be no consideration here that over the length of a season, the form of even the biggest and best clubs tends to adhere to an ebb and flow. The tide is high for Barca; low for Real. But tides turn. In a week, it could all be different. Especially since these sides are presently just a point apart at the top of the table – Barca has 65 to Real's 64.
So after the clash at the Camp Nou, one club will either retain or claim the cushy spot in the driver's seat for the La Liga title. And the other will, no doubt, find itself in a fresh or deepened crisis.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.