Its that time of the year again when the ‘biggest game of all time’ comes around. I talk, of course, about ‘El Clasico’. Much like last years encounter, Monday nights match-up has a very intriguing attraction to it with this being once again about how Real Madrid’s latest ‘Galacticos’ will cope at the home of the Catalans.
Another parallel with last years game is that Real go into it marginally in poll position in the table with a win for Barcelona being able to put them top and a win for Real meaning they pull slightly away from their biggest rivals which in this title race in La Liga, where the top two are so far ahead of everybody else, any points dropped could prove fatal. This was also evident last year when Barca came out on top in both ‘Clasicos’ and ended up winning the league on 99 points with Real on 96, a La Liga record for ‘Los Blancos’.
However there is one major difference between this years and last years which makes it all the more intriguing. I speak of course of ‘The Special One’, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho seems to be forever in a footballing war against FCB ever since he left them as a coach in 2000, never feeling he got the credit he deservered, and is now only known around the Camp Nou as the ‘translator’. Since becoming a full time coach he has inflicted plenty of misery on Barca by knocking them out of the Champions League with both Chelsea and Inter, including last years dramatic second leg when ten men Inter held on to a 1-0 defeat at the Camp Nou, winning 3-2 on aggregate, to deny the Catalans the chance to win the Champions League at the home of their fearsest rivals, a game which Mourinho has called his ‘greatest ever defeat’.
However you feel that one thing may have to change at some point which is his record at the Camp Nou where he in fact has never won. Amazing really when you think of some of the antics he has brought to it’s hallowed turf including racing onto the pitch in celebration of defeat with Inter and sliding to his knees to celebrate a desicive away goal Chelsea equaliser. And although there has been a clear change with Mourinho’s style of football since coming to Madrid his reputation of caution may come into play in his first ‘El Clasico’ and he may well feel a draw away from home is a good result, living in the hope his side can do the buisness at the Bernabeu.
But of course we must not forget about the role of the home team in this game. Barcelona have won the last four ‘Clasicos’, including that historic 6-2 victory at the Bernabeu in 2009. However in the last two at home they seemed to have found it much more difficult playing to the high expectations of their own supporters. In the famous ‘treble’ season Real came to the Camp Nou in dire straits having just apointed Juande Ramos as their temporary manager until the end of the season at least whilst Barca were flying under their then new coach Pep Guardiola. And although Real came and played rough spoiler tactics they had some great chances to win it and it was only a scrappy late goal from Eto’o and then on the break from Messi that won it for the home side. And how often do we talk about late scrappy goals or even goals on the counter attack fron Barcelona? Not very often at all. So clearly they have issues playing at their very best in front of their home cround against their biggest rivals, a weakness that Mourinho will surely try to exploit to his players.
So then what of the man in the home dugout? There is no doubt that Mourniho has tryed everything to get under Guardiola’s skin since the start of the season with his usual claims of teams fielding weaker sides and not trying enough against Barca. As if Mourinho couldn’t make himself more unpopular in Catalonia then trying to bully one of their most beloved sons has gone a long way to doing that, so much so the Cules have promised him a hotter reception than Figo! Maybe a horses head for Jose or is that too Italian? But Guardiola will have to try a calm his players in the same mold of calm in which he comes across, at least most of the time anyway (see celebration against Chelsea 2009 for further details).
And at last we get to the players! No doubt that there is great quaility on show from both sides with individual battles all over the park as well as collective team performances and tactics that will win the day. Like last year the game is also being dubbed ‘Messi vs Ronaldo’ for the battle of ‘best player in the world’. I use that term losely as you can only be as good as the position you play, for example a great centre back will never be considered for the big awards as a good striker would.
But the ‘Messi vs Ronaldo’ factor is likely to have a big effect on the game, in terms of who has the most influence, but may not be decisive. There are many other key battles all around the pitch, for a start the centre backs. Real have finally looked like a solid unit at the back for the first time in years with the signings of Carvalho and Khedira strengthening them greatly at the back. Puyol and Pique know eachother inside out by now but the one thing they lack, which Real have in abundance, is pace, one of the reasons why Real are expected to play a counter attacking game.
Then arguably the biggest battle on the pitch in the midfield. Xavi and Iniesta are definitely maybe the best midfield partnership in the world and what has been so crucial to Barca’s and Spain’s recent success. So the question is will it be Xavi Hernandez or Xabi Alonso that take the reigns and be the general of the midfield? Or will it be Andres Iniesta or Mesut Ozil that can be the main link between the midfield and devasting attacks of Villa, Pedro and Messi and Higuain, Di Maria and Ronaldo repectively?
It really is a hard one to call but the general feeling in Spain is that Barcelona are on their home patch and have been together as a group longer than what Real Madrid’s side has and will be able to understand the game tactically more so than the visitors. The bookies also put the Catalans as the favorites, probably due to home advantage. Barcelona though still are the team to beat with the worlds most ‘outstanding’ player Lionel Messi on their side but remember Jose Mourinho always likes to create a siege mentality where the opponent is always the team to beat making it all the better if he comes out on top.
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