Never before has a silence been so deafening. In the last 10 days José Mourinho has been in a self-enforced clásico media blackout. Lack of substance has never stopped the Spanish media wheel spinning, of course. But what we’ve seen spun this week has, largely, been a shit on a stick.
You could sense the editors of Marca and Mundo Deportivo shuffling in desperation through whatever material they could get their hand on. Shock horror! New Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a Madridista, predicts Real will win 3-2! Not to outdone, the Catalan daily Sport delivered us the world exclusive that his Socialist predecessor, Zapatero – a Barça fan – reckoned the Champions would prevail.
On Wednesday, the former Madrid stalwart, Guti- a man for whom the term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ must surely have been coined- popped up on the front page of AS looking like the offspring of some unholy union between Dennis Taylor and Martina Navratilova to proclaim a 3-1 victory for the meringue. It was all rather sombre, rather understated, rather… dull.
Or was is tranquil? It is worth remembering the poison Mourinho injected into this rivalry back in the spring; a rivalry that is bubbling over at the best of times. Even before that, Mourinho had been crowing as soon as a fortnight after last year’s 5-0 manita that his side would be ready to exact revenge before the season’s end. For all his tub-thumping, all his brouhaha, Mourinho’s outbursts had drawn little by way of advantage. This time there were no accusation, no eye-gougings, not a solitary ‘Porrrrrrrrr quéééééé?’. For better or worse, the juiciest quote came from Guardiola on Monday as he sought to downplay the occasion. “El clásico? No, for me the most important thing this week is whether Merkozy can save the Euro”
So, to the football then. Amongst the first things Mourinho said the day he rolled on down the Castellana into the Real hot-seat was that “My teams are always stronger in my second season”. He’s not wrong. This year Madrid have been a team transformed.
Last year there was a certain stodginess about them, a lack of finesse. If you can picture a drunken prizefighter slowly pummelling a succession of narcoleptic midgets into submission, then you can imagine how Real sleepwalked through vast swathes of last season. The outcome? Predictable. But as a spectacle, mostly unedifying.
For a team which- on paper- had so many star names, they failed to set the pulse racing. They bludgeoned teams rather than providing a sparkle. It was said that they were a one man team; nonsense. Even blind Aunty Conchita could tell you they were a two man team. Cristiano Ronaldo took it upon himself to apply the finishing touches, and you could sense a lack of confidence in his team-mates ability the way he hogged proceedings. In behind him, Xabi Alonso was the brains of the side- the absence of Alonso was the single thread running through almost every dropped point last year.
By contrast Barcelona were looking like possibly the greatest collective unit in the history of the game. The spatial awareness, the speed of thought, the near-telepathic understanding and the combination of the various sub-elements had most hacks enduring their darkest nightmare- being lost for words as they fell over themselves trying to grasp for fresh superlatives. With Xavi the metronome, Messi leading defenders on a merry jig, and David Villa slotting in as if he’s been there all his career, they were as terrifying as they were brilliant.
“Terrifyingly brilliant” were the words Sporting Gijon coach Manolo Preciado used to describe Madrid after his side were eviscerated 3-0 last weekend. It is not a phrase many would use to describe the champions right now.
First, and there is no getting around this, is their poor away form. There is no shame in drawing 2-2, as they did against both Valencia and Bilbao, showing real determination to fight back in the two most thrilling games of the season so far. But even before their shock defeat at Getafe a fortnight ago, there were clear signs that the team was having issues on the road. Another 2-2 was the outcome at lowly Real Sociedad back in September, with their only victories being by unconvincing margins at 1-0 and Granda and Sporting; both mired deep in the bottom three.
But it’s not just the results, it’s been the performances. And herein lies another contrast with El Real.
Win tonight, and Real will enter the record books, by reaching 16 straight victories. In that sequence they haven’t just been beating teams; they’ve been ripping their heads off and spitting in the holes, dancing on the graves of their dead relatives while yanking out gold fillings from their corpses to boot. It’s worth looking at the numbers for a minute- in that 15 game spell, they’ve netted a staggering 57 goals, while conceding just 9.
They have benefited from having a fairly settled starting XI, but also knowing they have the depth in quality to replace like with like to maintain freshness, or tear up the whole scheme if need be. One week, it’ll be Karim Benzema up top, the next Gonzalo Higuaín. Both are in ferociously good form, and neither can really be said to deserve to sit on the bench. But when they baton is passed, both form and touch are at peak levels. Sometimes it’s the 4-3-3 trivote, but mostly it’s a straightforward 4-2-3-1 with Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso proving the platform for Mesut Ozil, flanked by Ronaldo and the league’s player of the year this far- take a bow, Ángel Di María- to cut the opposition defence to ribbons.
There is a poise, a patience, a sense of knowing how and when to strike about this side that was lacking last term. Their pressing- a leaf from Guardiola’s book if ever- is unrelenting. In this, the injury of Ricardo Carvalho may have proved key. Sergio Ramos is far more positionally assured in the Portuguese defender’s central role than he ever was at right back, with Arbeloa providing much better cover in that area.
The pace is quicker, and the line higher. When they meet a massed defence, they are content to keep possession, never sterile, always methodical and zippy. The balletic precision of their counter-attacks is a joy to behold. Mourinho’s sides have always been defined by their mastery of the transition- that split second switch from defence to attack, and the ability to click back into the right position to shield themselves when a forward foray breaks down. But in this Real, we are possibly witnessing his finest work.
It now remains to be seen whether they can deliver upon this promise, and deliver a potentially fatal blow to champions’ title hopes. With a game in hand, in a league where both teams have amassed in excess of 90 points two seasons running, a win would effectively open up a 9 point margin. To close a gap of that magnitude against a rival of this prowess would be a tall order indeed for Barcelona. Even a draw preserving a 6 point gap (and again, we assume on that game in hand) would be a fine outcome in the greater scheme of things. But wait, wait, wait you say; wait indeed.
How could anyone write off Barcelona? They haven’t been beaten on this ground since the spring of 2008, and the only league match they failed to win in that period was last April’s draw, which was as much a dead rubber as it was a travesty of a mockery given how Barcelona had reduced their rivals to chasing after the ball like a team of schoolchildren.
With Messi there is always hope- indeed, in the two Supercopa games which Real bossed, they were undone both times by the impish Argentine. On Friday, Guardiola was guarded about the specifics- three at the back, four at back? Pedro, Villa, Alexis, Cesc?- but not regarding the bigger picture.
I’ve decided how I want to play. In the morning I will finalise who plays, and who plays where. We will go with the intention to play offensively, ambitiously, because we don’t know any other way. We have to attack well, to get forward, anticipate and that way we will find our openings on goal
No team in Europe would fancy facing Real in the form they are in at this moment. But if there is any team out there that is primed to derail the juggernaut, then surely it is Barcelona.
For more build up to El Clásico, check out the below video –