Real v Barca: teams of the century
"I've got an idea," I said to my colleague the morning after Barcelona's 5-1 thumping of Shakhtar Donestk in the Champions League semi-final first leg. "When Barca and Real Madrid reach the semis, let's do a Greatest XIs blog. That'll get the punters talking."
We came up with only two problems: firstly, that it might look a bit silly to include players from the days of yore like Alfredo di Stefano and Ladislao Kubala alongside a picture (top right) of the blogger looking about 14-years-old; and secondly, have you seen how many world-class players have represented these teams down the years?
In the end, it was quite simple. We decided to take the entire last millennium out of the equation and pretend the world began in 2000. At least, I consoled myself while I crossed out the names of Diego Maradona and Michael Laudrup, 99% of you taking part in this debate will have seen the contenders in action.
So, what better way to celebrate four Clasicos in 18 days - with the second installment the Spanish Cup final on Wednesday in Valencia - than to choose your favourite Real Madrid and Barcelona teams from the past 11-and-a-bit years?
Increasingly at ease with the risk of looking foolish, here's my turn - complete with stats and facts brought to you by Infostrada Sports:
Real Madrid XI:
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas.
Easy enough to pick Spain's World Cup-winning captain, not least because he's worn Real's number one jersey with distinction since 1999, thus rendering anyone else pretty much irrelevant. Super reflexes, quick off his line and brave too.
Did you know? Despite not turning 30 until May, Casillas has played more than 400 league and 100 Champions League games for Real, and has more than 100 caps for Spain.
Right-back: Michel Salgado.
Salgado or Sergio Ramos - arguably the hardest choice in the Real XI. Salgado nicks it because of his superior defensive ability, needed in such an attack-minded side. If you want to know what he makes of Clasicos, read his column in this month's FourFourTwo. "Hate is a strong word, but Madrid want Barcelona to lose everything," he says.
Did you know? Salgado is married to former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz's daughter.
Left-back: Roberto Carlos.
Save for Paolo Maldini, if there has been a better left-back in the past 20 years I haven't seen him. Carlos gave the team energy, pace and attacking threat down that flank - and could you ever take your eyes off that stuttering run-up and thunderous free-kick?
Did you know? Carlos is the only non-European player with more than 100 Champions League appearances.
Centre-back: Fernando Hierro.
Real's skipper and inspiration, Hierro's never-say-die attitude made him the perfect foil for the creative whizz-kids at the other end of the pitch. He won La Liga five times and the Champions League three more in a stellar spell at the Bernabeu. "He was the captain of captains," said Raul.
Did you know? Hierro played in Real's Champions League final wins in 1998, 2000 and 2002. They have not been in the final since his departure.
Centre-back: Fabio Cannavaro.
Perhaps joined Real a shade after the best part of his career, but nonetheless a wonderful defender - and still the only one to be named Fifa Player of the Year. Cannavaro filled Zidane's vacant number five shirt with relish and won the league in his first two seasons in Madrid.
Did you know? On 12 August, 2009, Cannavaro won his 127th Italy cap - taking him ahead of the previous record holder, Paolo Maldini.
Centre-midfield: Claude Makelele.
Selling Makelele was perhaps the biggest mistake Real have made this century. With him, their phalanx of attacking players were free to create carnage; without him, they were rudderless. "We won't miss Makelele, his technique is average," said president Florentino Perez in 2003. After the signing of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane begged to differ: "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"
Did you know? Makelele has appeared in a record eight Champions League semi-finals.
Centre-midfield: Zinedine Zidane.
A player of more astounding technical skills it is hard to imagine. Joined for a world record £46m in 2001 and blessed Spanish football with his captivating class until retiring after that World Cup final in 2006. The three-time Fifa Player of the Year's goal in the 2002 Champions League final will live long in the memory.
Did you know? In April 2002, Zidane became the first Real player since Canario in November 1960 to score a European goal at Barcelona's Camp Nou.
Right midfield: Luis Figo.
Gets the nod ahead of David Beckham because on his day the Portuguese winger was unstoppable. Joined from Barca in 2000 in one of the most controversial transfers of all time and enjoyed a wonderful seven years in Madrid, being named the world's finest footballer in 2001 and going on to win a record 127 caps for his country.
Did you know? In the last 50 years, eight players have moved from Barca to Real. Only one - Figo - has had a pig's head thrown at him as a result.
Left midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo.
The sheer volume of goals he has scored in almost two seasons at the Bernabeu almost beggars belief. He bagged 33 last season and already has 41 this time around - if it was not for Lionel Messi, he would be comfortably the most talked-about player on Earth. Finally got through a Clasico without defeat on Saturday, too.
Did you know? Ronaldo's buy-out clause is reportedly worth €1bn.
A goalscoring machine whose heart belongs to Real Madrid. He left the club last summer after 16 trophy-laden years and 323 goals in 741 matches. Raul was a creator and a predator all rolled into one. "Real buy these big players like Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raul," said Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson in 2003.
Did you know? Raul moved to Real after Atletico Madrid chairman Jesus Gil shut down their youth academy where he was training.
The best thing about Il Fenomeno's retirement from football in February was the spate of highlights reels flying around showcasing the Brazilian in his magnificent prime. A striker of unparalleled physical power combined with an oft-overlooked finesse, before he was left ravaged by injury Ronaldo was unplayable.
Did you know? Ronaldo scored 47 goals in 49 games for Barcelona in the 1996-97 season, aged 20.
Manager: Vicente del Bosque.
A Real man through and through. He won La Liga five times in a fine playing career at the Bernabeu and remains the last man to lead Real to the Champions League trophy, in 2002. Was bizarrely sacked a year later, one day after the club had won their 29th league title.
Did you know? Del Bosque was awarded the honorary title of Marquis by King Juan Carlos after leading Spain to World Cup victory in South Africa.
Goalkeeper: Victor Valdes.
Almost as easy a choice as Casillas - it's easy to forget the 29-year-old Valdes has been Barca's first-choice keeper since midway through the 2003-04 season. After some shaky displays in the early days he has improved year after year and has won the Zamora Trophy for best keeper in Spain three times to Casillas's one.
Did you know? Since the 2001-02 season, Valdes leads La Liga in clean sheets - he has 131, Casillas 129.
Right-back: Dani Alves.
A man who tends to divide football fans in half. On the plus side he is a destructive force down Barca's right, starting attacks and creating goals and defying science with his boundless energy. But his play-acting and argumentative nature sometimes deflect from what a good player he is. Labelled his "natural successor" for Brazil by the great Cafu - no mean feat when Alves is competing with Maicon for the right-back privilege.
Did you know? Alves has assisted 13 goals in La Liga this season - second only to Lionel Messi.
Left-back: Gio van Bronckhorst.
Arguably under-rated as a full-back having started his career in midfield, 'Gio' was unwanted by Arsenal, 28 and on his way back from a year out with a cruciate knee ligament injury when he arrived at the Camp Nou in 2003. But he forged a superb alliance with Ronaldinho down the Barca left and helped them to two league titles and the Champions League in 2006.
Did you know? When Van Bronckhorst left Barca in 2007, it ended a 10-year period in which the Catalan club had employed at least one Dutchman.
Centre-back: Carles Puyol.
The heart and soul of Barcelona since he pulled on the famous Blaugrana shirt in October 1999. Puyol, a born and bred Catalan, has been club captain since 2004 and puts his body on the line every time he wears the armband. "Barca are the team every Catalan child wants to play for... I am living the dream," he once said.
Did you know? Puyol's surprise appearance after injury on Saturday was his 23rd in Clasicos. He hasn't missed a league match against Real since March 2001.
Centre-back: Gerard Pique.
Puyol's partner in crime since returning to the Camp Nou in May 2008 after a four-year spell at Manchester United. Tall, elegant, a masterful reader of the game despite only being 24, and with the ability to step out of defence and start attacks, Pique could turn into one of the great defenders of any era. Already has 13 major trophies to his name.
Did you know? Real Madrid have banned the 2010 World Cup song 'Waka Waka' since it emerged singer Shakira is in a relationship with Pique.
Arguably the world's best midfield player, it took Xavi a while to get the plaudits his perfect passing deserves, despite making his Barca debut all the way back in 1998. Unerringly accurate, he regularly completes more than 100 passes in a game, set up four goals in Barca's 6-2 win at Real a year ago, and was man of the match in the 2009 Champions League final against Man United.
Did you know? Xavi, who this season surpassed Migueli as Barca's record appearance maker, bought his mum a toaster with his first paycheck.
Combative and skilful, Deco had one eye for a tackle and the other one for goal and the Brazilian-born Portuguese was a crucial component in the Frank Rijkaard era. His terrific work-rate made him the perfect foil for Ronaldinho - Luiz Felipe Scolari once said their partnership could "make rain fall".
Did you know? Along with Paulo Sousa and Secretario, one of only three Portuguese players to win the Champions League with two different clubs.
Centre-midfield: Andres Iniesta.
Another, like Xavi, who had to wait his turn to be appreciated. Iniesta's astonishing technical skills and reading of the game might have endeared him to the Barca fans, but his lack of goals was regularly highlighted as a major weakness for an attacking midfielder. Winners against Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semi-final and the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final appear to have changed that.
Did you know? Iniesta's name has been applauded at every Spanish ground this season because of his winner in Johannesburg last summer.
Left forward: Ronaldinho.
How many other Barca players have ever been given a standing ovation in the Bernabeu? Ronaldinho was signed in 2003 after Barca missed out on David Beckham - perhaps the biggest slice of luck in the Catalan club's recent history. For three years he was out of this world; with that galloping stride, those mesmerising feet and a smile that charmed us all, in full flow he was truly a sight to behold.
Did you know? Ronaldinho scored five Clasico goals in the space of 18 months from November 2004 to April 2006.
Right forward: Lionel Messi.
The heir to Diego Maradona's throne in an Argentina shirt and Ronaldinho's in a Barca one - and he may yet go on to be better than them both. Messi is only 23, yet has been named the best player on Earth twice and this season already has 49 goals, breaking the Spanish record he already held with the Brazilian Ronaldo and Ferenc Puskas. Electric feet, clinical finishing, implausible balance... where will it all end?
Did you know? After watching a 16-year-old Messi against his Juventus side in a friendly in 2003, Fabio Capello asked: "Who is this little devil?"
Striker: Samuel Eto'o.
Goals, goals, goals. Eto'o, mind-bogglingly cast away by Real Madrid, was a guaranteed 25-a-season man and with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Deco, Ronaldinho and Messi teeing him up, he never disappointed. Eto'o scored in the 2006 and 2009 Champions League finals and left the club with Barca's first Treble as his legacy.
Did you know? Aged 15, Eto'o arrived at Madrid airport in 1996 to find Real had forgotten to send a representative to pick him up.
Manager: Pep Guardiola.
Could have made it into the team; after all, midfield general Guardiola only left Barca in 2001 after a successful 11-year spell. Returned to coach Barcelona B in 2007 and was - riskily - made first-team boss only a year later, winning the Treble in his first season as a coach. His contract runs out at the end of next season and Guardiola has hinted he may call it a day, but no-one in Catalonia will want him to leave.
Did you know? Guardiola counts Manuel Estiarte, apparently one of the finest water polo exponents of all time, as one of his closest friends.
I know - seven players from this season's Barcelona team. Is it too many, or does that reflect just what a top team this is? Only two from Real's current crop, but there is plenty of time for the likes of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Karim Benzema to make their mark.
Maybe one day, when I'm old and grey, I'll get away with doing all-time XIs. Wonder how many of these boys would make it...