What’s bigger than the Clasico? Four Clasicos, that’s what. In 17 days, no less. I’m really at a point where I’ve lost the ability to have related, coherent thoughts, so what follows is just a bunch of random stuff floating in my head. I hope, at the very least, that putting bullet points next to my “thoughts” somehow makes it seem more sensible.
Barca and Madrid could have been drawn together at the quarter final stage rather than the semis, but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with the football gods’ conniving plans. You see, under the arrangement we actually have, each game that follows is more important than the last, like the football version of a round of poker where each player raises the stakes. Or a play where each act is more crucial to the plot than the last, only if the play was watched by hundreds of millions of people and was based on one hundred years of political, social, linguistic, and sporting rivalry.
The first of the Clasicos is the La Liga Clasico on Saturday April 16. Since Barca have an eight point lead atop the table and there will only be six games left after Saturday, most people – including myself, at the risk of jinxing – have concluded that the league is over, regardless of the result on Saturday. The next one is the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday April 20. The Copa matters to both clubs, especially Madrid, since historically they have not been as successful at this competition as their pedigree would suggest (Barca and Athletic Bilbao have won more Copas than Madrid; I leave you to judge the irony in the fact that the main Catalan and Basque clubs have won this competition named after the Spanish royal more than anyone else). And then all this crescendos with the first leg (Wednesay April 27 at the Bernabeu) and second leg of (Tuesday May 3 at the Camp Nou) of the CL semis. With all this talk about climaxes, it’s almost as if God wants us to think about football as sex.
Evil Mourinho’s possible evil plans
Some of the Barcelona blogs and their comment sections are worried about Mourinho recognizing that the Liga clasico is essentially worthless, and thus using it as an exercise in deliberately injuring players such as Messi and Iniesta and Pique (Barca’s only fit center back) for the rest of the series. Especially since yellow and red cards don’t carry over from one competition to another. Honestly, I think Mourinho’s pretty evil but not that evil. But you know who IS that evil? Sergio Ramos. And Pepe. And Carvalho. Maybe this is my paranoia speaking, but I don’t trust those guys one bit. And frankly, let me go back on what I said earlier in this paragraph: I don’t trust Mourinho either.
Last year, as Inter coach, Jose Mourinho claimed that for Barcelona, reaching the 2010 CL final, to be held in Madrid, was an “obsession”. And you know what? He was right. But it’s not as if Madrid aren’t obsessed with the Champions League. They’ve been stuck on nine European Cups for a while now – too long if you ask the average Madridista – to the point where La Decima (The Tenth) has become a bit of an albatross. Hell, this year is the first time in seven years they’ve even gotten past the round of 16. It may have been better for their sake if they were stuck on eight. Whatever. May they be stuck on nine for a long, long time.
Carles Puyol (injury) and Eric Abidal (post tumor-removing surgery) are out for Barca, leaving them very short at center back. Pep has played around with his limited options, playing an old and slow Milito at times and a young and slow Busquets at other times. Neither is a great option, because, um, they are slow. Barca’s high defensive line and aggressive off-side traps mean that they need pace from at least one of the center backs to cover the acres of space they leave behind them, which is why Pep tried Mascherano there in Barca’s last game against Shakhtar. However, Mascherano is suspended for the Liga Clasico, so Pep will have to come up with something else, at least for the first of the four Clasicos. Pedro is working himself back from injury and may not start this weekend; he should start each of the other three.
On Madrid’s side, everyone appears to be healthy for the most part. All-world defender (and all-world jerk) Carvalho is suspended for the first leg of the CL semi, but everyone else seems to be available.
Statistical trends ending
Pep has never lost as coach against Madrid. In fact, his record is an unbelievable Played 5, Won 5, Goals for 16, Goals Against 2. God has never scored against a team managed by Mourinho. Ronaldo has never scored against Barcelona. I’m pretty sure each of these three amazing records will be done with by the end of the series.
The blogosphere is full of idle speculation as to how the coaches are going to approach these games. Will they jealously guard some tactical innovation until closer to the end of the series, when most is at stake? How soon do they play their trump cards, if they have one?
Judging by the discussion in a couple of places, Mourinho might play Pepe in a defensive midfield role and use Albiol as a center back; in the 5-0 thumping at Camp Nou in November, Iniesta and Messi simply had too much space between the lines. In fact, I had even mentioned in my preview for that game that Khedira and Alonso – the nominal “defensive” midfielders for Madrid – weren’t defensive at all. Khedira is a box-to-box midfielder, and Alonso a deep lying playmaker. Neither of them is a Makelele or Gattuso. So Mourinho might opt for Pepe in that role, since he’s played it for Portugal at times. Or he might opt for a Christman tree 4-3-2-1 and play Lass alongside Khedira and Alonso in front of the back four, leaving Ronaldo and Dive Maria on the wings and Benzema/Adebayor up top.
Mourinho is also likely to have Madrid sit deeper and not press Barca until they are in the final third, similar to his strategy with Inter last year. Such a strategy funnels Barca’s attack down the wings, where they are less effective owing to terrible crosses and a lack of height in the box (this is why Keita might be deployed quite a bit in this series).
Differences in what’s at stake
Of course Madrid would like to win these games, particularly the Champions League tie, but let’s be honest: Barcelona needs to win this series more. For Madrid, this is the first year of the Mourinho era; his teams historically do very well in his second year, and as long as there is improvement from last year – and there has been – Mourinho’s big name buys him time from the rabid Madrid press and fans.
On the other hand, Barca are in the middle of their best run in history. It’s as simple as this: this is the greatest Barcelona side ever. To cement their legacy, and put themselves in conversation with Sacchi’s Milan and di Stefano’s Madrid, they have to win at least one more European Cup while Pep is in charge, and a couple of La Liga titles wouldn’t hurt either. Though the team is fairly young, a couple of developments this year have shown that the end of this era is probably closer than most Barca fans would like to think. First, next year is likely to be Pep’s last as coach. Second, Puyol’s injury troubles (out since mid January) confirm that he’s getting up there; he’s already 33. I can see him transitioning to the bench next year, which will be hugely consequential not just because of his play but also because of his leadership. Xavi too is getting older, and while his tendinitis from earlier in the year seems to have sorted itself out, it was a worrying sign that Barca might have to start nursing him a bit more in the next couple of years.
The bottom line is this: no one knows how long Barca can keep playing at this level. It’s imperative to cash in while the going is good, for history’s sake as much as anything else. “Three CL titles in six years and five La Liga titles in seven years” has a much better ring to it than “a bunch of CL semi-finals in a row”, I think you’ll agree.
Absolutely none. Don’t even try to rope me in on this. I do know that the attitude as espoused by Cruyff, godfather of Barcelona football, that “Barca only need to win the second (Copa final) and fourth (home leg) of this series” is a recipe for disaster. Pep is unlikely to subscribe to that belief anyway. But I have no inkling as to how this series is going to develop because we’ve literally never seen anything like this. This is absolutely, unequivocally, unprecedented. For instance, how will momentum carry over from one game to the other? No idea. Will the managers tend to stick to the same XI for each game? No idea. What will the psychological impact of a loss be on the next game? No idea. There’s no point even bothering in guessing. Just sit back and enjoy it (if you can). This is about to get good. Or bad. Whatever.