Although many thoughtful football fans would point to the role of a vastly increased fixture list as a factor in devaluing many of the sport’s oldest rivalries, even the most sage commentator would struggle not to salivate over the quadrilogy of Clasicos coming up in the next three weeks.
There is scarcely a more inspiring occasion in world football than a clash between the Iberian monoliths of Barca and Madrid; inexorably tied as they are by generations of political and footballing animosity as well as seemingly constant sucess. The two teams, under the guidance of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, will meet four times in 18 days due to an implausible alignment of league, Copa del Rey and Champions League semi-final matches. The series will build to a crescendo with the games being played in what is, ostensibly, an ascending order of importance. The final game, and the second leg of the Champions League tie, will be played in the Camp Nou on the 4th of May, providing that the whole of Spain has not combusted in anticipation by that point.
The league is now Barcelona’s to lose as they sit eight points clear of Los Blancos and a mere 24 points ahead of third place Valencia. The result of the opening match between the clubs will probably only serve as a mental crutch to the winners for the cup ties ahead. Both managers, and especially the mind game-obsessed Mourinho, will be keen to hold the upper hand going into the one-off games that form the latter part of this astonishing fixture list.
Not that there isn’t any mental baggage to weigh them down already. Real Madrid will be scarred by their encounter with Barca earlier in the year where they were demolished 5-0, in what was an irresistable display from the Catalans. On the other hand there is perhaps no-one that can prick the sheen of Messi and Co’s confidence quite like Mourinho. They too will remember a previous run in which The Special One as his Internazionale side outthought, outmuscled and ultimately vanquished them in the Champions League last year, leaving Jose with his arms aloft on the Nou Camp turf, barely caring that he was being drenched by the sprinklers activated by a graceless ground staff.
To say that both teams are in good form is a risible understatment. Excluding the 1-0 defeat at home to Sporting Gijon, which ended Mourinho’s infeasible record of having not lost a league home match as manager for almost nine years, Madrid are flying, thanks in no small part to the preening Portugese Cristiano Ronaldo. 28 goals from 28 league games this year do not tell the whole story. He has been electrc all year, displaying a poise and skill that makes the moniker of Galactico seem almost understated. Augmented by the craft of Mesut Ozil and the assured touch of Xavi Alonso he would be the player of his generation but for one man.
Lionel Messi is a superhuman presence on the football field. The usually eloquent Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe was moved to tweet of the diminutive Argentinian earlier this week one word – “Mental”. Given the statistics for his season this seems like the only appropriate response. 29 goals in 28 league games, nine goals in ten Champions League matches, seven in six Copa del Rey ties and three in two SuperCopa appearances give him a total of 48 goals in 46 games this season, a selection of numbers that speak more plainly to his skill than superlatives ever could. Coupled with the twin maestros of Xavi and Iniesta he is unstoppable. The ability of both teams to cope with the other’s brightest star will be the defining feature of these matches.
Barca will enter as favourites but will be quietly concerned with the overall outcome. They could go from being the best team in the world to a fallible, romantic entity if Mourinho has his way. Johann Cruyff has said that the only games which actually matter are the second and the fourth, the culmination of both cup competitions. Neither side will expect a grand slam and for Madrid perhaps victory in the final clash in the Nou Camp would achieve the goal that they really want. For a club with such an illustrious European record to have not reached the quarter finals of the Champions League for eight years was embarrassing in the extreme. They will be desperate to victory to prove that, given their league standing, they are not just the poor relations of their Catalan cousins.
Regardless, this wish may prove harder to bring to fruition than any task they have ever undertaken. Anyone who watched them try, and fail, to play Barca at their own game in the 5-0 loss will not hold out much hope for Madrid. It will be far tighter than the score line from that evening suggests but Guardiola’s men should have the edge. Although they trounced Spurs, Madrid did not keep the ball or nullify the sole attacking threat of Gareth Bale well enough over the course of their two quarter final legs to suggest that they can tether Barca’s glittering offensive unit and metronomic interplay for 180 minutes. That said almost every commentator said the same of Inter Milan last year, and look what happened. With Mourinho in charge there is always hope.