Supercup serves up classic dish
Real and Barça meet for 12th time since José Mourinho arrived in Spain
Barcelona and Real Madrid once again face each other on Thursday night in the first of four certain clásicos of the season, although more should not be ruled out such is the frequency with which the two sides have met since José Mourinho swaggered into town.
The Spanish Supercup will be the 12th and 13th clásicos in two years, with the opening leg at Camp Nou and the return at the Bernabéu.
In all, the great rivals have met four times in the league, twice in the Champions League, twice in last season's Supercup and three times in the King's Cup; Mourinho's arrival in the capital triggered fresh respect for a competition that Real went out of its way to get knocked out of for some years, culminating in the now-famous 4-0 drubbing by third division Alcorcón in 2009.
Prior to Mourinho, Real and Barça had not played in the domestic tournament since 1996-97, the Supercup since 1997-98 and the Champions League since 2001-02.
Clásicos had become a biannual plato fuerte, to be served up between the weekly tapas of La Liga, voraciously consumed by the division's big fish. Now the sides are sick of the sight each other.
The same fixture last year descended into a brawl during which three players were sent off, triggered by an appalling tackle on Cesc Fàbregas by Marcelo, who also received a red card. In the ensuing mélée Mourinho gouged the eye of Tito Vilanova, who took over from Pep Guardiola in the summer, drawing a shove from the former assistant.
Both received Supercup touchline bans that were later rescinded by the Spanish Football Federation, leaving both tacticians free to direct play from the technical area.
With any luck, the game will be in the headlines this time around; both encounters last season were pulsating affairs, if a little spicy, ending in a 5-4 aggregate triumph for Barcelona. Generally, however, clásicos in the Mourinho-Guardiola era were drab affairs, dictated by the Portuguese's defensive blueprint. Real has since learned to trust to the counter-attacking style that won it the league last season with a record haul of goals and Barcelona, as always, will stick to its possession-based ethos.
The absence of Pepe, the chief antagonist in recent encounters, also favors a more open game but a sign of declining animosity between the teams was in evidence after the Portuguese defender suffered a head injury in a collision with goalkeeper Iker Casillas during Sunday' match against Valencia: Gerard Piqué, one of Barcelona's more provocative components, sent his best wishes to the Real Madrid man.
Mourinho will be keen for his side to score early again on Thursday as it struggled to break down an obstinate Valencia in a 1-1 tie, having taken the lead after 10 minutes. For the first time since his arrival in Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo failed to muster a shot on goal in Real's Liga opener. Barcelona, meanwhile, stuck five past Real Sociedad and could have scored plenty more, but as it tends to do did concede to the visitor.
Whatever the result over the two legs, Mourinho believes it is hardly a season-defining affair: "A match between rivals is always important, even in a summer tournament, but the Supercup is the least important of the four we play during the season," the Portuguese told the press. "I believe there is no relation between the winner and what is going to happen in the rest of the season. We lost the Supercup last season and we won the league breaking records."
Asked about Barcelona's recent hegemony in a BBC documentary — under Guardiola it won 14 of the 19 competitions it participated in — Mourinho reverted to form: "In my country you can't speak of hegemony until a team has won two consecutive Champions Leagues. That's the meaning the word has in Portuguese, but maybe it's different here."