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On the Catalan coast a fixture all-too-frequently gracing screens worldwide was staged in front of the home side’s largest attendance of the season. Except this wasn’t El Clasico, rather the mini version, the youngsters continuing the feud one league down from La Liga – a concept not familiar in England.
That’s because in Spain, reserve teams can compete in the second division. They used to be allowed in the Copa del Rey too, Real Madrid Castilla advancing to the final before losing 6-1 to Real Madrid in 1980 - since 1990 though, reserve teams have no longer competed in the cup.
Foreign managers, notably Rafa Benitez and André Villas-Boas, have sought to replicate the idea in the Football League. “Why shouldn’t they if they have enough quality?” Argued Benitez in 2007, Villas-Boas more recently added that English reserve sides don’t “serve the progression of talent coming through, youth development systems in England are not right.”
On January 27 in the Mini Clasico, beneath the shadow of Camp Nou, there were examples to serve both for and against the theories of the two Iberian managers.
Witnessing the two sides of the argument with just over 12,000 fans at the Mini Estadi were the now common “independència” chants – a political reference to Catalunya’s bid for secession - in each half, anti-Madrid songs, four goals and a red card. Everything associated with recent El Clasicos now gracing the Mini Clasico on its return 15 years since they were last in the same league.
Castilla took a first half lead, Alvaro Morata – later subject to cries of “Morata, why don’t you go to Getafe?” - heading home shortly before half time. The game changed though when Alex Fernandez, brother of Los Blancos’s captain Nacho Fernandez, was sent off allowing Barça B to exert total control.
Rafinha Alcantara – brother of Thiago - Gustavo Ledes and Luis Alberto put on a tiki-taka exhibition under a blanket of “olè” shouts from the crowd, Boca Juniors loanee Sergio Araujo scored twice and Gerard Deulofeu – La Masia’s next big hope – added a third following the award of a soft penalty. He’s the Spanish second tier’s top scorer.
Throughout the game the morbo – untranslatable but similar to rivalry - was tangible. Little over 100 Madridstas were present, tucked in a corner waving Spanish flags to incite the Catalan nationalism feelings. It drew loud whistles which, by the third goal, evolved into streams of Barça fans clambering down their stands towards the angle housing the Madrid devotees – the customary tirade of expletives hardly worth repeating.
The win moved Eusebio Sacristán’s young men further ahead of their relegation-threatened Madrid counterparts, keeping them in a play-off spot - rules would prevent them competing for promotion though. In 1984 both Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao’s reserves were denied promotion, as were Atletico Madrid’s in 1999 and last season Villarreal’s second string were relegated to Segunda B - where the reserves of Atheltic, Atletico, Valencia and others play - to make room for the first team.
Barcelona are the example of what Benitez and Villas-Boas hoped to replicate in England - a club reaping the rewards of a second team in the Championship providing youngsters to leap into the first team. Real Madrid – in the moment at least – fail to offer that platform and as one time Liverpool player and now Spanish television presenter Michael Robinson says provide “one of the great evidences where the rich get richer and poor get poorer.”
Deulofeu and 17-year-old left-back Alejandro Grimaldo harbour realistic hopes of following the path of Andres Iniesta and Xavi. For Morata and Nacho it is difficult to imagine them joining Cristiano Ronaldo and his expensively assembled friends, the likes of Juan Mata and Roberto Soldado already previous examples of fleeing canterano – a term for youth teamers in Spain. It’s a bone of contention in the Spanish capital, hence the “Getafe” jibe from the crowing Barça supporters.
Despite all the hatred, action and excitement generated by the Mini Clasico it is still hard to take Messrs Benitez and Villas-Boas points with more than a pinch of salt. Barcelona are an exception to a rule and besides, it wasn’t long ago that the blaugrana was largely adorned by Dutch internationals. It may seem a nice premise but the reality suggests it would serve the same function as the beaten Real Madrid Castilla and, as Robinson said, do little more than further enhance the bulging gap between the affluent and the rest.