LA LIGA

Real out to reassert ‘clásico’ edge

Mourinho’s team will fall 11 points behind if Barcelona wins Liga showdown

Iker Casillas dives to stop Xavi and David Villa during a Real Madrid-Barça encounter.
Iker Casillas dives to stop Xavi and David Villa during a Real Madrid-Barça encounter. JAVIER SORIANO (AFP)

It is ridiculously early in the season and shows a distinct lack of respect for the standard of the other teams, but none of that is stopping Liga observers treating this weekend's clásico< as a decisive match with regards to a championship which will not end until next June.

Much has been made of the eight-point gap that has yawned early on between Spain's two dominant sides, due to Barcelona's perfect six-wins-in-six start for new boss Tito Vilanova, and Real Madrid's early stutters against Valencia, Getafe and Sevilla. Add that to the much-publicized spat between coach José Mourinho and Sergio Ramos (the Andalusian defender taking the fall for the champion's misfiring opening to its defense and being relegated to the bench before being put back in his less preferred right-back slot), and we are talking — in histrionic Bernabéu terms — about a full-on crisis.

The pipe of peace seems to have been smoked in Amsterdam this week, however, as Ramos returned to his rightful place alongside Pepe at the heart of Madrid's defense after reportedly having issued an apology to his teammates for defiant actions and statements, such as placing his shirt on top of that of Mesut Özil — another star shining less brightly in Mourinho's eyes these days — during the half-time interval of the last league game against Deportivo.

The truth is that 11 points, in the result of a home win for Barça on Sunday, would be a mountain to climb against a fully functioning Catalan powerhouse, especially as long as Leo Messi continues his stupendous run of form and fitness. Mourinho's Real, however, has surely now ditched its inferiority complex after a painful series of clásico drubbings, effectively regaining Liga superiority with last April's win at Camp Nou.

The exit of Pep Guardiola, Mourinho's old foe, from the Barcelona coach's post, citing the pressure of media expectations, added to a sense that the pendulum had finally swung Madrid's way as the Portuguese delivered on his promise of winning the league title in his second season. After Real's victory in the summer Supercup, which may be little more than a friendly (if such a thing is possible in clásico terms), it comes a something of a surprise that it should be Vilanova's Barcelona boasting a 100-percent record and Real still pulling itself out of the mid-table region. It is true that Mourinho and Real president Florentino Pérez's overriding objective for this season is to finally capture la décima, the long-coveted 10th Champions League title in the club's history. That would seal Mourinho's legendary status as a coach, after triumphing with Porto and Inter Milan in Europe's top competition.

Many observers believe that this would also send Mourinho off in search of a fresh challenge, an impression augmented by the coach's declarations in a CNN interview this week that he "hates his social life" and that his "next move" will definitely be a return to England, where he coached Chelsea to Premier League success.

But it is far too early to be kissing the league goodbye and the coach has shown since arriving at Real that he can quell the inevitable outbreaks of bickering under the sporting world's most intense media spotlight. On his side, Mourinho has an extremely strong squad, which means no player — with the exceptions of Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo — can feel indispensable. And besides the points on offer, Sunday represents a great chance to put the wind up Vilanova in his first season in charge of a big club.

Over at Barcelona, the biggest problem for the rookie coach is the defensive line-up. The talismanic Carles Puyol is out having dislocated an elbow in Lisbon this week when attempting a trademark pile-driver header in the midst of a free kick mêlée — only to crash to the floor when no opposing defender leapt against him. Barça's other stalwart in the middle of the back four, Gerard Piqué, is a doubtful starter. The experimental combination of Alex Song and Javier Mascherano could lead to hesitation and gaps opening up for the forward thrusts of Cristiano Ronaldo and whoever accompanies the Portuguese pouter up front.

Ángel di María is a Mourinho favorite and back to his impish best but Kaká's midweek performance against Ajax has caused the Brazilian to once again occupy his coach's thoughts. Luka Modric is also pushing for a starting place while Özil seems to be slipping down the pecking order. Up top, it a straight choice between Gonzalo Higuaín and the in-form Karim Benzema.

Barcelona's Xavi, who had the grace to note that whatever the result the season is long, revealed nothing new when he said that the home team "must keep possession of the ball and not change our soccer philosophy in order to avert Madrid attacks. We intend to win this ourselves; it would be a tremendous morale boost."

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