El Centrocampista

El Clasico marks the beginning of a season-defining week for Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola

It’s the biggest game of them all. Yet each year it appears to get bigger, and this one is no exception. When Barcelona and Madrid collide there seems to be an extra sense of purpose, something special in the air that makes those 22 men feel like they’re involved in a game of chess for life and death. You can see it in their faces, in the way they react when the chips are down. Particularly, you can see it in their managers.

Pep Guardiola says it’s a luxury to be in the position Barcelona are in now: four points behind and with the potential to cut that gap to one. In the context of where they were five weeks ago, he’s right. Make no mistake about it however, falling as far behind Madrid as Barcelona have done will have hurt Guardiola: he’s a competitor of the fiercest kind, and whether he admits it or not, tonight, revenge will be on his mind.

This is, after all, the man who gouged his best friend in the eye and then retreated like a coward. The man who persistently tries to besmirch his character, so much so that it has almost become accepted now that Guardiola, as composed as he normally is, will occasionally break rank and return the favour with a barbed criticism towards Mourinho (in the most gentlemanly of ways, of course).

Tonight’s encounter marks the beginning of a seven-day period that will define Barcelona’s season. If all goes well, they’ll be on their way to Munich, with the bonus prize of the slender possibility of winning the league. As if they needed an added incentive, if Barcelona win the league Guardiola will equal Cruyffs record four titles in a row.

If all goes badly, they’ll walk away with no hope of winning anything of worth, and the consolation prize of a potential Copa Del Rey. Just like Madrid, last year. Not to mention, Athletic are no pushovers. Barcelona could lose that, too.

For Mourinho, it’s a similar story. A man who prides himself on winning trophies in his second year at a club, this week will go a long way in either maintaining that record or discarding it as a myth. Jose pretends he doesn’t care, but we all know he’ll be irked by suggestions that, as Madrid coach, he has never truly bettered Guardiola. Even the Copa Del Rey win, rightly or wrongly, is often discounted as lucky. Mourinho is a winner, he’ll want to change that.

And so the tie is poised delicately and brilliantly. Real Madrid, undoubtedly the most dominant force in La Liga this year, have swept away all comers; lined them up and knocked them down. Yet for many, they haven’t really been tested.

When they were, Barcelona defeated them. When they were, Bayern Munich defeated them. Mourinho’s men know that in order to begin to make their mark as one of the defining teams of the decade they need to defeat the defining team of the decade. Falter, and they could still win the league. They could still win the Champions League, too, but if on the surface Madrid would celebrate any such triumphs like the immense victories they are, underneath they’ll be hurting. Particularly when they meet up with their foes on national duty in June.

So how exactly do both coaches approach this tie? Pep Guardiola will know that, in order for this week to work and for Barcelona to gain anything, pressure needs to be relieved from Lionel Messi.

In the absence of David Villa, the Argentine is expected to take the weight of the entire team on his shoulders. More often than not he delivers, but it’s not conclusive to a team vying to make history to rely on one person. Messi has bad games too, you know. We often forget that because he does the sublime so often. Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge wasn’t one of them, by the way.

Instead, some of his team mates under-performed. Where Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas have assisted Messi this season, they failed to do so against Chelsea. With Alexis a doubt for tonight through injury, it’s up to Cesc Fabregas to justify, or perhaps, continue to justify Barcelona’s relentless quest to bring him home. Fabregas was a leader at Arsenal, now he needs to step up and be a leader at Barcelona. The Catalans need him, Messi needs him. Let’s not forget too, David Villa needs him.

The Asturian is working tirelessly to regain fitness on time for a potential appearance in Munich, as well as giving his team a hand in the final, vital days of the league. If Fabregas and his colleagues can give him those opportunities, it would go a long way to repaying him for the times he bailed them out : like against Milan, with a sublime free-kick. Like against Madrid, with that goal from distance.

Madrid owe one of their teammates a favour, too. Far too often, Cristiano Ronaldo is criticised for not picking Barcelona apart single-handedly. The fact is, he shouldn’t have to. With the wealth of talents available to Madrid, Ronaldo should be part of, rather than the sole source of a potential victory over Barcelona. Barcelona are a team when it counts, Madrid need to be one too.

Only Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will know exactly how they will approach this tie tonight. For all we know, they might not even know yet either. In any case, the decisions they make this week will play a huge part in deciding the outcome of their seasons, and will leave a lasting mark on their careers, too.

They’d better make sure the choices are the right ones.


One Comment

  1. Chris

    24 April, 2012 at 01:16

    Join your favorite team on championsleaguefans.com !!!

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