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Women's Clasico: Real Madrid closing gap on Barca Femeni?

BARCELONA -- When Jonatan Giráldez first moved to Barcelona from his hometown of Vigo over a decade ago, he used to enjoy walks around Montjuic where the iconic Olympic Stadium, used for the Games in 1992, is located. At the time, he was going through a range of jobs -- as a charity street fundraiser, a dessert chef and in department stores -- to fund his dream of working in football.

A lot has changed since then. On Sunday, the Barcelona Femení coach takes his side to the 50,000-capacity Olympic Stadium to host Real Madrid in El Clásico.

After completing various coaching courses, Giráldez eventually landed a job at the Catalan Football Federation via Espanyol before becoming the women's assistant coach at Barça in 2019. He replaced Lluís Cortés after the Blaugrana had won the treble in 2021, including a first-ever Champions League, and has continued to make the team even better, with world-record crowds flocking to Spotify Camp Nou to watch them.

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Last season, as well as winning Liga F for a fourth successive season, they picked up a second Champions League title, coming from 2-0 down to beat Wolfsburg in the final just eight days after Giráldez had become a father for the first time.

Barça's success means he can't take anymore anonymous walks around the hilly Montjuic area of the Catalan city. Instead of the pressure to raise enough money to pay his €800 rent, the 31-year-old is dealing with how to keep Barça at the top of the game now they have a target on their back.

After reaching the last three Champions League finals and winning two of them, Barça are widely viewed as the team to beat in Europe. French giants Lyon -- whom they have never beaten and lost Champions League finals against in 2019 and 2022 -- may argue with that, but domestically there can be no doubts about Barça's dominance.

However, the gap is closing as big clubs invest in their women's teams. This is most notable in England, Germany and France, but also in Spain where Madrid, as is the case in the men's game, have emerged as Barça's biggest rivals.

Each season, Los Blancos add more talent from around the world to their squad. Scotland's Caroline Weir (who will miss the Clasico through injury), Colombia's teenage sensation Linda Caicedo, Australia's Hayley Raso and Denmark's Signe Bruun are among the international stars supplementing a core built on Spain's World Cup winners like Misa Rodríguez, Ivana Andrés, Teresa Abelleira, Olga Carmona, Oihane Hernández and Athenea del Castillo.

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Each season, since absorbing CD Tacon in 2019, Madrid get a little bit closer. In 2021-22, they finished 30 points behind Barça. Last season, they finished 10 points back. This season, after just eight games, the gap is just three points.

"Madrid are [cutting] the distance," Barça winger Caroline Graham Hansen said on Thursday. "They are working hard, signing better players every year and that brings them closer. But we are also upping our level every year. We know Sunday will be a huge battle and we can't wait to get out there. It's El Clásico and that means a lot for us. Playing against Madrid is always special."

Three consecutive group stage appearances in the Champions League have helped Madrid's growth and enabled them to attract more quality -- and they just drew 2-2 with WSL champions Chelsea in midweek. "They have some decisive players," Giráldez told ESPN on Thursday. "Olga [Carmona] is in great form: practically everything she touches is a goal or an assist right now. Caicedo, in this role she is playing this season, more inside, has the capacity to attack space and drive at opposition.

"In the case of Bruun, they have managed to find a referential forward for playing direct. She has six goals in the league; she's a goal scorer. Losing Weir to injury was not great in that sense, but others have shared the goals.

"As I have said many times, the higher the level of all the teams, the better it is for everyone. It makes [the league] more attractive and demands more from us on a daily basis."

The idea that Barça benefit from a healthy rivalry with Madrid is shared by the players.

"It's important for women's football to have a strong Madrid," Graham Hansen added. "[El Clásico] is a big game, a game the whole world knows and it's important that it reflects the level in the women's game. It has to be the game of the year for the women, as it is for the men. Therefore, it's really good that [Madrid] are also doing things well."

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Madrid are not yet doing things well enough to beat Barça. In 11 meetings since they've been officially called Real Madrid, they have lost all 11 games. The last meeting in March, though, ended just 1-0 to Barça -- Fridolina Rolfö's penalty the difference between the two teams at the Johan Cruyff stadium.

That close game could be a sign of things to come. Having clinched two Champions Leagues in three years and won all 30 of their league games in 2021-22, Barça have very little room to improve, even if they still maintain that motivation and hunger for success as a squad.

"Intensity is not an in-game issue," Giráldez said. "Playing with intensity or not is down to training; it's about creating that habit. Right now, during the week, I would say it's the best I have seen [Barcelona training] all season. The last two sessions I have seen the team with bags of intensity and a real desire to compete."

Barça's players can only control so much, though. Other issues are not in their hands, such as how much other clubs are able to spend. And while Barça's women's team are the only team at the club -- as well as the men's first team, there are basketball, futsal, hockey and many other teams -- that are not running at a loss, they have been affected by cutbacks.

In the summer, Geyse Ferreira and Laia Codina were both allowed to leave for transfer fees, joining Manchester United and Arsenal respectively. Neither were guaranteed starters at Barça, but were great squad options; the money received was not re-invested. The only summer signings were free agents: full-back Ona Batlle from United, and young Dutch midfielder Esmee Brugts.

It is against that backdrop which sporting director Markel Zubizarreta -- considered by many to be the architect of the current squad -- recently left his role. Last week, Marc Vivés was announced as his successor and the task he faces is not a small one. Giráldez, goalkeeper Sandra Paños, defender María Leon, England international Lucy Bronze, Spain forward Mariona Caldentey and, perhaps most importantly, two-time Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas are among those out of contract at the end of the season.

The Putellas situation is particularly precarious, with various reports in the local media about interest from abroad and a stand-off over salary demands as Barça wait to see how she recovers long-term from the ACL injury she suffered last season. She is a doubt for Sunday's game after receiving a minor knock in the Champions League win over Benfica, but has been a first-team regular again this season, scoring five times in nine appearances in a new attacking role.

Those are all issues for Vivés to resolve in the coming months. For now, Barça remain as competitive as ever, with perhaps the best set of midfielders in the world -- with Putellas, Ballon d'Or winner Aitana Bonmatí, Patri Guijarro and England's Keira Walsh among them -- and some of the best youngsters, including exciting attacker Salma Paralluelo, who starred at the World Cup for Spain.

With Camp Nou being redeveloped, over 30,000 are expected to attend Sunday's game at the Olympic Stadium, which is temporarily housing the men's team and will be used for the women's team's biggest games this season.

For Giráldez, that will mean a trip down memory lane.

"When I first game to live in Catalonia, Montjuic was the place I most like to go," he said. "It's a special place because of its history, the Olympic Games and because it's where our men's team are playing now. Every week we have 5,000 fans at the Johan Cruyff, but this allows many more to come and enjoy a great day of football which, I hope, ends with a win."