Despite the impressive performances from Chelsea and Bayern Munich, the enticing fantasy clash of Real Madrid vs. Barcelona still looms as a mouth-watering Champions League final – the ultimate Clasico.
But, in many ways, it is the weekend’s Clasico in La Liga that should be earning the main focus. For both Real Madrid and Barcelona, this 90 minutes at the Camp Nou could be season-defining – and, for Jose Mourinho, it will have an enormous impact on both his future and his legacy in the Spanish capital. The European tussle can wait.
For Mourinho, the final La Liga Clasico of the 2011/12 campaign is a true test of the progress he has made in closing the talent gap on Barcelona over the course of this season and eliminating the psychological hold that the Catalans have enjoyed over Real Madrid under Josep Guardiola. Los Blancos enter this latest instalment of El Clasico with a four-point lead over the Blaugrana and a six-goal advantage in the goal difference column as they seek their first La Liga title since 2008.
Instantly taking Chelsea to the summit of English football was a remarkable effort while the Treble with Inter Milan also caused jaws to drop – but, given the rivalry and animosity between the two teams, outlasting Barcelona for the Spanish title, regardless of how the European journey ends, would surely rank at the top of Mourinho’s list of successes. Seemingly, this duel has become personal.
Make no mistake, Mourinho’s spell at the Bernabeu has been packed with frustration, especially the direct Clasico showdowns. His track record makes for wretched reading, with five losses, four draws and just the Copa del Rey triumph over Barcelona in the win column. Understandably, this tale of woe has taken its toll. It takes a lot to knock Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo out of their stride, but Barcelona’s stranglehold has sparked plenty of sleepless nights.
The 5-0 demolition back in November 2010 – the Portuguese’s first taste of El Clasico as Real Madrid boss – might be classed as the worst of the bunch, but the heated first leg defeat in last year’s Champions League semi-final has unquestionably lingered too, with clashes between the teams becoming ever more tense and fractious. Too often it has been Los Blancos who have let their frustrations spill over, leading to red cards and uphill battles.
The gap has closed since Barcelona’s five-goal masterclass almost 18 months ago, however Mourinho will have taken no comfort in the narrower margins of defeat. A 3-1 loss against Barcelona in December – a game that Real Madrid entered on a high – was a reminder that Guardiola’s men remain an immense object in their path.
Similarly, this year’s two-legged Copa del Rey quarter-final was hard fought and Real Madrid gave a solid account of themselves. Again, though, when the dust settled, it was Barcelona celebrating a 4-3 aggregate win. Losing to Guardiola’s men has been a hard habit to shake.
In truth, Mourinho’s inability to outmuscle and outthink Barcelona has masked the extent to which he has revived Los Blancos. The Spanish giants are clearly number one and number two in European football and the Portuguese tactician has routinely been thwarted not by deficiencies in his squad, but by the pure quality of Barcelona. Time and again, his hugely talented team has been derailed by arguably the greatest club side ever – and arguably the greatest player to grace the game, Lionel Messi. Sometimes, timing is everything.
But the final La Liga Clasico of the season presents a fresh opportunity to hit back – for Mourinho to outwit Guardiola, for Ronaldo to outplay Messi. A victory in the Camp Nou might be a tall order, but even a draw would keep Real Madrid firmly in the driver’s seat heading into the final weeks of the campaign. For once, the pressure is shifted onto Barcelona, given that anything short of a victory will leave them with too much ground to make up. And, of course, looking ahead to that potential European tussle, pipping Barcelona to the domestic title would build powerful momentum and earn a mental edge.
Reaching and winning the Champions League final for the third time is the ultimate dream for Mourinho, though he understands that securing La Liga is step one on the path to dominance in Spain. With that in mind, and in the knowledge that Mourinho’s future in Madrid is still unclear, the Clasico is an unmissable showdown.