Here's your guide to all of this weekend's best soccer action from around the globe.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
Where: Santiago Bernabéu
What's At Stake: According to Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff, not a whole hell of a lot: "It's only a game and nothing more than that." Maybe, but as games go, it's the premier matchup in the entire sport. The best two club sides on the planet, the best two players in the world (Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo). Look, these things rarely work out the way we want them to. Last season Real and Barca played twice in La Liga and competed against one another in the Copa Del Rey and Champions League. By the end of it the players, coaches, fans and neutral spectators were staggering around, like revelers making a daybreak exit from a party that got a little too real. The matches were cantankerous, scrappy and cagey. We all needed a break.
The two titans of Spanish football squared off to open the 2011-12 season in the Spanish Super Cup and reminded the football world just how awe-inspiring this much-(too)-hyped rivalry can be, with Barca besting Real 5-4 over two wonderful, controversial (Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho eye-gouged a Barca assistant in a post-match brawl), stupendously well-played legs.
The Spanish Super Cup was the last time this season that Real Madrid seemed like they could be bested. Despite losing to Levante and drawing with Racing Santander, early in the campaign, Mourinho's side have since played with a punishing, mechanized menace about them, rattling off 15 wins (in all competitions) in a row.
Barca, on the other hand, is in the unfamiliar position, in terms of recent history, of looking up at Los Blancos. Pep Guardiola's side is three points behind in La Liga's table, despite winning their last two matches a combined 9-0. Going into the match no less of an authority than Barca midfielder Andres Iniesta has claimed, "I believe this is the best Barça team I've ever played in."
The lead-up to this match has been a little more muted than usual, as this first league Classico of the season comes right after the final games of the Champions League group stages and the last league match these sides will play before the new year. There have been none of the usual press conference shots across the bow from Mourinho (who has perhaps ostentatiously skipped his usual pre-match presser). No cryptic insults from Guardiola. The players have largely kept their mouths shut.
Call it the quiet before the storm. While football fans everywhere will pray for a repeat of the Super Cup's entertainment, the smarter bet would be on barely contained hysteria. The last five matches between these two teams have produced 43 cards, including five reds.
Predicting football matches is sort of a mug's game but, given the league position of Barca and Mourinho's earlier statement about going with only one striker (either Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema), don't be shocked if Real play for a draw. The lure of putting Barca to the sword will be there, but Mourinho, who is many things, is nothing if not practical. He will want to go into 2012 ahead of Barca, not even with them.
Whatever, how do predict something so enormous, something so immense? It almost insults the entire undertaking to guess what will happen in the end. Where's the fun in that? Sure, it's just a game. But as game's go, there may not be a better one in all of sports.
Who To Watch For: I don't know, just a hunch but keep your eye on Madrid's no. 7 and Barca's no. 10.
Manchester United vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Where: Old Trafford
When: Saturday, 10:00 a.m EST (ESPN2)
What's At Stake: For United, a much needed course correction. The Red Devils have rather spectacularly gone out two competitions in the last two weeks (losing to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup and dropping out of the Champions League following a defeat to FC Basel). Sir Alex Ferguson's side haven't beaten a Premier League opponent by more than a goal since its victory over Norwich and please believe nobody is writing Homeric poems about that win.
The "crisis club" hot potato has been tossed from Arsenal to Chelsea and has now landed, burning, in Ferguson's hands. His midfield is a shambles. He just lost his captain and best defender, Nemanja Vidic (knee), for the rest of the season. Wayne Rooney hasn't scored a goal since September. Javier Hernandez is out for a month (ankle).
United is still in contention for three trophies (FA Cup, Premier League, Europa League). To compete for any of them, Ferguson will need players like Nani, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck and—perhaps most of all—Rooney, to first arrest this dip in team form. That can begin Saturday against an inferior Wolves side. But if United treat Mick McCarthy's physical, harrying team the way it treated FC Basel, they could be in for a long Saturday.
Who To Watch For: Welbeck. The young striker is coming back from injury just in time for a United side starving for goals.
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