Barcelona look to Ansu Fati and Camp Nou for Clasico inspiration against Real Madrid

Young guns lead attack for both sides as new era begins in famous battle with Messi and Ramos consigned to history books

A little over ten weeks since Lionel Messi shed tears announcing his formal farewell to the club where he had spent more than half his lifetime, a teenager with his career stretching ahead of him stood in the same spot, in the same Camp Nou auditorium on Thursday to celebrate his long-term commitment. Barcelona made a big, showpiece deal of the deal they have just signed with Ansu Fati.

He has put his name to a contract until 2027, with a buyout clause of €1 billion ($1.16bn), which means Ansu, inheritor of Messi’s former number 10 jersey, will not be leaving for free, as Messi did in the summer, before his mid-20s at least.

For financially constrained Barcelona, that is a form of insurance. For all those who imagine the club’s huge debts — the burden that meant they could no longer keep Messi on the payroll — and declining performance levels point to chronic decline, the Ansu contract announcement is designed as a warning.

First warning shot is aimed at Real Madrid, who will visit Barcelona on Sunday expecting to be confronted with a rejuvenated Barca, at least in terms of the line up. Ansu, who only returned from a long-term knee injury last month, is gathering form. He has scored twice in 94 minutes of league football since his return.

Meanwhile, seventeen-year-old Gavi has made himself close to first choice in midfield within three months of a season that began with him yet to make his senior professional debut.

Ideally, Pedri, 18 and just over a year into his senior Barcelona career, would also be fit to take part in the clasico, but he is unlikely to be sufficiently recovered from a muscle problem.

A year ago this weekend, Ansu scored his first goal against Real Madrid, a dream come true for a teenager who had come up through Barcelona’s youth system. Alas, the watershed moment took place in front of an empty arena, because of Covid-19 restrictions. Nor did it end up the way Ansu and his then captain, Messi, desired. Madrid won 3-1.

That turned out to be Messi’s last clasico at Camp Nou and the last for Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who won and scored the penalty that put his team 2-1 ahead. Ramos and Messi have played in more Barcelona-Madrid fixtures than anybody else in their clubs’ histories but, after a tumultuous summer of farewells, they now find themselves as colleagues at Paris Saint-Germain.

Messi and Ramos’s last Camp Nou head-to-head feels like the end of an era. But it also left clues about who the next set of long-term curators of this fixture might be. \

There were decisive interventions from two teenagers, Ansu, and Rodrygo, then 19, who came off the bench to set up the Luka Modric goal that sealed the points for Madrid. As Pedri and Ansu were substituted, Rodrygo and his fellow Brazilian Vinicius Junior set about attacking the flanks, as they have done to great effect in recent weeks.

Rodrygo scored his second Champions League goal of the season on Tuesday, in the 5-0 win at Shakhtar Donetsk. He had already seen Vinicius execute two fine finishes, and, in those goals, two more exemplary demonstrations of his growing maturity as a goalscorer.

Vinicius was signed by Madrid as a promising but costly — at around €46m from Flamengo — prospect as soon as he reached his 18th birthday. He soon became known as an erratic finisher, prone to letting himself down once one of his dashing slaloms had left him one-on-one with a goalkeeper.

This season, his shooting has been precise and poised. His goals against Shakhar were his sixth and seventh so far in 2021-22, more than he has managed in either of his three previous campaigns with Madrid.

Vini Jr, as he likes to be known, looks a whole lot more senior since he turned 21 in July.

Barca’s vision is for Ansu to go into his 20th year — he turns 19 on October 31st — showing similarly marked signs of progress. “I’ve still got a big margin for improvement and I know I need to listen to everyone at the club who wants to help me get better,” he said at the ceremony to celebrate his new contract. “With hard work every day, I can reach my full potential.”

He will listen out for the special applause his name draws from Sunday’s crowd, which should be the biggest at Camp Nou for more than 18 months. “We have to take advantage of being at home,” he said of a Barcelona who, at seventh in La Liga, are five places though only two points behind Madrid. “A full Camp Nou is an extra motivation.”

Updated: October 22nd 2021, 8:09 AM
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