Real has not won a Liga clásico since May 7, 2008. That night at the Bernabéu, Raúl, Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and a young Gonzalo Higuaín (the only marksman of the four still at the club) scored in a 4-1 victory that hastened the end of a mini-era at Barcelona.
The day after the defeat, with the league now having clearly gone Madrid’s way for the second straight season, the Catalan club announced that Frank Rijkaard’s five-year spell was over, the coach having brought the club two Ligas and only its second Champions League trophy.
But the Dutchman’s laissez-faire personal style had seen a hugely talented team degenerate too quickly after hitting the heights in Spain and Europe. The decline was exemplified by the extravagantly skillful Ronaldinho, given a generous ovation by the Bernabéu at the end of the November 2005 clásico in which he had demolished the home team, but told he needed a “new challenge” at the end of 2008 season.
The Brazilian forward’s injuries and weight problems summed up what seemed to be a general loss of the work ethic which underpins any champion side.
Mourinho has positioned Real as a kind of rude underdog to the aristocratic Catalans
Pep Guardiola shares many of the soccer-playing concepts held dear by Rijkaard, but the preparation of the team has moved to a different level. Since that 4-1 four years ago, the league meetings between Spain’s big two have been dominated by a Barcelona that combines silky passing with an admirable work rate. The result: six wins one tie since Guardiola took charge, with an aggregate score of 20-4 to Barcelona.
Perhaps even more painful for Real fans is the way their Catalan enemy has taken over a hegemonic position in European soccer, a role Real is obsessed with regaining. In his three completed seasons, Guardiola has seen his players win the club’s third and fourth Champions League titles, as Madrid’s agonizing wait for its heroic and oft-imagined 10th success has now lasted a decade.
After Leo Messi had blown apart another attempt by Real to keep the game tight in last season’s European semifinal, the Bernabéu faithful shook their heads in a kind of grim resignation. They are getting used to succumbing to a bogeyman who plays so stylishly, but not all are prepared to take refuge in the politicization of these duels as propounded by José Mourinho.
During his two seasons in charge, the Portuguese coach has positioned Real as a kind of rude underdog to the aristocratic Catalans, putting out defensive lineups, typically moving the thuggish Pepe into a dual midfield role as enforcer and chief provocateur, and, typically after defeat, spouting his press-room theories about a refereeing conspiracy.
“I have heard it said in the locker room that it’s impossible to beat Barcelona,” became one of his best-known barbs, cleverly avoiding any attribution to any particular player or, heaven forbid, himself.
“Guardiola is an intelligent kid and he knows how he has won so many matches,” is his latest attempt to poison Spain’s premier sporting occasion.
Mourinho’s machinations runs contrary to Real Madrid’s long-cherished ethos of gallantry. He may bring titles, but how long can the self-styled bastion of sporting values withstand the Portuguese’s penchant for insinuation and skullduggery? After his first season in charge, and with his one success against Barcelona in the King’s Cup final under his belt, the Portuguese saw off general director Jorge Valdano, the eloquent personification of that more sublime Real Madrid of yesteryear.
Mourinho’s men are four points in front of Barcelona, meaning they can lose and still have the league title in their own hands. A tie in Camp Nou would be both honorable and sufficient to keep a comfortable points cushion with only four more matches to follow. A win for Real would mean the league and perhaps shake Guardiola off his regal perch; the coach has yet to make an official decision on whether he will sign a new one-season contract.
What no one will know until next Wednesday is whether this Saturday’s clash is the final and therefore definitive clásico of the campaign, or whether it is a mere appetizer for the real battle in Munich on May 19. If Real and Barcelona can reverse respective first-leg defeats at Bayern and Chelsea, a duel for pre-eminence in European soccer lore beckons.
One tier down, in the Europa League, the possibility of an all-Spanish final also took a slight blow on Thursday night, with Athletic Bilbao slumping to a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Sporting Lisbon. In the other semifinal Atlético Madrid is well set up after a 4-2 home win over Valencia.