The El Clasico will not only see the collision of the titans but also that between philosophies and personalities.
IF having one mouthy Portuguese in Madrid was not bad enough, Barcelona had to contend with another in Cristiano Ronaldo. Jose Mourinho’s compatriot and star goal poacher Ronaldo effortlessly lit the fuse for the 161st El Clasico by mocking Los Blaugrana’s 8-0 battering of Almeira last Sunday. Ronaldo dared Barcelona to repeat their eight-goal feat at Camp Nou, perhaps foolishly not realising that they did put six past Los Merengues as recently as 18 months ago.
Ronaldo should also be made aware that Josep “Pep” Guardiola’s men have coasted the previous four derby clashes – four wins in as many games with 11 goals to boot. The memory of Madrid’s last win at the Camp Nou is fading to three years and this encounter could have not been better timed. Postponed from the original Sunday date to accommodate the Catalan polls – only the third occasion in history an El Clasico match is staged on a Monday (Tuesday morning Malaysian time) – Barcelona and Madrid strap up for it with all the might that they could muster.
Both, which booked their places in the last 16 of the Champions League this week, are in sizzling form at home as well. Los Merengues answered Barcelona’s annihilation of Almeira with a 5-1 trashing of Athletic Bilbao, thanks to a treble from Ronaldo. His Barca counterpart, Lionel Messi, has also shrugged off a largely unremarkable World Cup to resume his talismanic role for club. As an aside, if any evidence was needed that Messi and Ronaldo are thriving under new managers at international level, it materialised in the past midweek’s friendlies when Messi emerged as Argentina’s match winner in the 1-0 victory over Brazil while Ronaldo helped Portugal hammer Spain 4-0.
Back in the La Liga, they are locked in a personal battle for the Pichichi (leading league goal-scorer) honours. Ronaldo, with 14 in a dozen games, leads Messi by a solitary strike and the latter has a personal record against Los Merengues to uphold as well. Messi has found the net in three of the last four showdowns between the two clubs and his overall haul of seven is just three short of Madrid’s legend Hugo Sanchez’s El Clasico collection, which would propel him into the top five of goal-getters in these grudge games.
This is not to suggest that the Argentine is poised to nail down a hat-trick next but the indications are that the Madrid rearguard must sling up Messi if they were to triumph at Camp Nou. Ronaldo too is keen on being on the winning side for once, after his debut season was dulled by Madrid ending up trophy-less again. Ronaldo has already eclipsed Madird’s ultimate icon Alfredo de Stefano on one count: his 15 goals has ensured that he has had the best scoring start to the season at the club in 75 years.
While he has been bullying the lesser lights of La Liga, it is against the hard hitters that Ronaldo needs to prove his mettle and they do not come any larger than Barcelona at Camp Nou. The Ronaldo-Messi private duel overshadows the performance of Barca’s A-list summer signing, David Villa. Barcelona’s No 7 has six to his name thus far and has only one in the last three league games, during which his new team racked up 14 goals.
Unlike Ronaldo, Villa comes in-built with big-match temperament and has the knack of performing well in games against Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid cannot afford to have eyes only for Messi as Villa is equally destructive if allowed the space and to come into his own. Madrid’s backline has their work sketched out for them from the onset and if there is a glimmer of faith that their defenders could surpass the failings of the last two seasons, it lies with Madrid’s other Iberian import.
Mourinho has employed the same siege mentality that he successfully charted at Chelsea in forging a great team spirit at Santiago Bernabeu. He has a team whose members fight for each other, which spreads the job of defending across all three departments and applies an in-your-face pressing game. This is reflected in the “goals for” column, where Madrid had conceded only six goals as opposed to the nine under Manuel Pellegrini at this stage last term. Pellegrini, despite accumulating a historic number of points, still had to bow to Barca as he was unable to convince their players of their infallibility.
This is not a problem for Mourinho. His abrasive style with the media and rivals may unnerve club officials who insist on decorum and pride but they knew the exact contents of the Mourinho package when they asked for its summer delivery. He injected self-belief and a winning mentality in what was a purposeless Chelsea side, turning the Blues into the allconquering team that swept domestic gongs every year from 2005 and 2007.
At Internazionale Milano, he attained the one trophy to elude him at Stamford Bridge: the Champions League. In a period at Santiago Bernabeu, Mourinho has imposed his cunning and combative streaks into the team and they have reacted with a superb start to the campaign. Los Merengues now have the manager to counter Guardiola, whose brilliant team were threatening a lengthy hegemony in Spain and Europe. And the contrast between the two could not be more obvious.
Despite his uncharacteristic surliness – especially in response to shocking results in the Champions League earlier – Guardiola has remained mainly phlegmatic and composed. He has briefly observed Mourinho at near quarters – the Portuguese was an interpreter to Bobby Robson when Guardiola was one of the key players who remained as the Dream Team were dismantled – and also as an opponent, when they went head-to-head seven months ago in the semifinals of the Champions League.
Mourinho won that contest and went on to claim his second Champions League. His was a stunning rejuvenation of Inter though neutrals found it hard to admire much of their football. Guardiola, the youngest manager ever to win the same competition, possesses the moral authority over Mourinho and Madrid. Barcelona’s football pleases the purists and is based on talent that was hewn from home ground while Madrid prefer to bring in mercenaries from abroad to sustain their status.
The El Clasico will not only see the collision of the titans but also that between philosophies and personalities. One is a manager who tends to stress on physical force and defensive discretion when faced with tougher opposition and has all the understated elegance of a bull in a china shop. The other is an impassive figure whose football – in its movement and magic - impassions many. That very much sums up Barcelona-Real Madrid; MessiRonaldo and Guardiola-Mourinho. The El Clasico could not come fast enough …
Lucky charms: Traditional ceramic figurines of Real Madrid’s Ronaldo and Barcelona´s Messi called caganers in Catalonia. The figures symbolize fertilization, hope and prosperity for the coming year. Next week both would want three points in the El Clasico.