FOX Soccer Exclusive
El Clasico clash bigger than ever
Jose Mourinho, for once, is at a loss. His Real Madrid faces Barcelona at Camp Nou in the first league Clasico of the season, and the self-proclaimed “Special One” says he hasn’t a clue how his side will fare.
“You never know what will happen,” Mourinho said Saturday. “The two teams are good. We both want to win the game, but you never know. These are easy games to be psychologically prepared for, you do not need long tactical talks. The players will arrive very motivated.”
They should be. The ante for Sunday’s game is huge. Barcelona hold an eight point advantage in the Primera División table entering the game and Madrid know a loss could give their eternal rivals a potentially decisive title advantage even at this early stage.
Real got off to a tough start and Mourinho blasted his players last month for a lack of effort after losses at Getafe and Sevilla. The turning point was Real’s comeback win in the Champions League over Manchester City, a four-minute revival that saw them win out 3-2. Real have since won three straight, scoring eleven goals and conceding just two.
“The players understood that they had to change,” Mourinho said. “They had to be more motivated, more concentrated, more focused. They have changed the chip and now it is easier for good things to happen.”
Harmony also seems to have returned to Madrid’s locker room. Both the well-publicized “sadness” of talismanic attacker Cristiano Ronaldo and the defiance of defender Sergio Ramos seem to be resolved. Ramos said this week that he and Mourinho had sorted out their issue, while Ronaldo has slotted in six goals in his last two games.
Real’s team nearly picks itself: Ramos is again comfortable at centre-back and Karim Benzema’s spectacular scissors-kick goal against Ajax midweek cemented his position up top. The only doubt is who to play in midfield, and Luka Modric is favored to get the nod over the slumping Mesut Özil.
Barcelona, on the other hand, has some questions. Club captain Carles Puyol is definitely out after painfully dislocating an elbow in the routine 2-0 Champions League victory at Benfica on Wednesday. His usual partner Gerard Piqué faces a race against time, having only returned to light training with his teammates Saturday afternoon. If Piqué's injured ankle has not healed in time, Barca will start with two converted midfielders -- Javier Mascherano and Alex Song -- at the heart of its defense.
"Piqué trained today,” said Tito Vilanova Saturday after training. “We will see tomorrow how his foot is and we will decide whether to take a risk or not. He will either be able to play or he won’t. His foot will decide."
Barcelona are perfect in the league, with six wins in six games. Cesc Fábregas has three goals in his last two games; David Villa has a hat trick over just 111 minutes of play as a sub. Andrés Iniesta is fit again, Lionel Messi is a given, leaving Pedro, Cristian Tello and Alexis Sanchéz fighting for the final starting spot.
In the most recent La Liga meeting last April, Madrid dealt surprisingly comfortably with everything Barca could throw at them, with Ronaldo firing in a late winner which all but sealed the title.
In August’s Supercopa clashes, Barcelona seemed to have taken control, rebounding from Ronaldo’s opening goal to cruise into a 3-1 lead, but Madrid rode out the storm and then seized on a series of Barcelona blunders at the back to go ahead on aggregate. Mourinho’s men then showed discipline and solidity to hold out for the trophy, even after Messi had put the tie back on a knife-edge with a superb 25 yard free-kick.
The issues highlighted by those games -- Barca’s defensive concerns, Madrid’s steely resolve and Ronaldo’s sharp finishing -- could swing things Real's way and re-ignite the La Liga title race.
The buildup to the game has been influenced by matters well outside the sporting world, with the economic crisis in Spain leading to calls for Catalan independence. All 98,000 fans (99% of whom will be home supporters) will receive cards to hold aloft before kick-off to deck out the stadium with the colours of the Catalan national flag.
This is a move which has not gone down well in the Spanish capital, and both Mourinho and Vilanova were keen to stress that they were sportsmen not politicians on Saturday. Yet everyone knows the issue adds an extra edge to the match, including blaugrana playmaker Xavi Hernández.
“We are Barcelona, we represent Catalonia and we are with whatever the Catalans want,” said Xavi after training on Friday. “We try and keep away from non-sporting things. We know the political theme is there, that people have the right to express themselves as they believe, but we are here to play football.”
It is hard to argue with that. Such is the anticipation in Spain that one television preview show is to run non-stop for 26 hours. The interest worldwide is so great that 680 media professionals, from 28 countries from Japan to Burkina Faso to the USA, will be present. The live global TV audience is expected to top 400 million.
Let El Clásico begin.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.
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