For Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman, Saturday’s match against Real Madrid will have all the usual pressure, star power and importance of any meeting between Spain’s biggest rivals.
Just one thing will make this “clásico” a little less classic: The absence of the 90,000-plus fans that always fill Europe’s biggest stadium for one of the biggest games of the season.
“Nothing has changed much. These are two great clubs who always have to play to win. The only difference is the lack of public,” Koeman said Friday, looking back to the clásicos he played in as a Barcelona defender in the early 1990s.
“That is the worst thing that can happen in a Barça-Madrid match,” Koeman said. “Without fans, it is less exciting because they provide the atmosphere and make it more complicated for the referee. … We all need the fans. It is strange to not have anyone in such a huge stadium. In this type of game, the fans help the player on the field.”
A quarter of a century has passed since Koeman played his last game against Real Madrid. In his six-year stint as one of Barcelona’s top players, he was known for his leadership and his memorable goals from set-pieces. He scored fives goals in 14 games against Madrid, with Barcelona winning six, drawing three, and losing five.
The free-kick he scored in a 5-0 rout of Madrid in 1994 is only surpassed in the club’s lore by the free-kick he blasted home to give Barcelona a 1-0 victory over Sampdoria and its first European Cup in 1992.
Koeman recalled his encounters against Madrid, especially the two goals he scored from the penalty spot in his first clásico.
“I have played plenty of clásicos and I remember the 5-0. I scored a pretty goal from a free kick,” he said. “I also remember my first one, when I scored two penalties. I scored three actually, but the referee made me repeat the second one. The first clásico is always a bit more special than the rest.”
The city of Barcelona, like the rest of Spain, is struggling to keep in check a resurgence of the coronavirus. No fans have been allowed into stadiums of league matches since the virus hit Spain, shutting down soccer, and most sports, from March to June.
Local health authorities have so far rejected the club’s proposal to gradually introduce small groups of fans to see Champions League matches. No fans attended Barcelona's 5-1 rout of Hungarian club Ferencváros in the Champions League on Tuesday.
With Camp Nou empty except for the players, staffs and a minimum of workers, fans could until recently still gather in bars to watch matches. But all bars and restaurants are currently shut-in Barcelona as the surrounding Catalonia region tries to slow the surge in infections.
Koeman gave no hints on his starting line-up, saying that performance, not experience, was the key for him to choosing his players. He did not rule out featuring his two 17-year-old forwards, Ansu Fati and Pedro “Pedri” González. Both are part of the rebuilding project Koeman pledged to carry out as coach following the club's trophy-less 2019-20 season.
Madrid will enter the match after two straight losses, one in the Spanish league against Cádiz and the other in the Champions League against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk.
Koeman doesn't think that will have any impact on Saturday's game.
“I don’t expect them to give us as much space as they did against Cádiz and Shakhtar. We expect to see a Madrid that is much more compact,” Koeman said. “(Madrid) is a great team, with experienced players who know how to handle pressure and how to win games.”
For Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, the trip to Barcelona is an ideal chance to end his team’s skid.
“I have always been critical of myself because that’s the driving force behind always getting better,” Zidane said. “A clásico is a clásico, with two good teams going head to head. It’ll be a good match despite the situation and the empty stadium.”