The first Clasico is just 28 days away, not that I’m counting. That means four weeks until FC Barcelona square off against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and a month until the world discovers whether the tide has turned in Spain. Ever since Guardiola took over the Blaugrana have been the dominant force in Spanish football, but Mourinho’s Madrid are closer than ever.
In fact, they are not just close, but the standings put them ahead by three points; the largest gap since the appointment of the Catalan coach. Real Madrid are hitting top form and the much-publicised "second season peak" expected from a Mourinho side appears to be coming to fruition. Cristiano Ronaldo may be changing his hairstyle at half-time, but his treble last week against Osasuna took his tally to 10 as a Los Blanco, just three behind the legendary mark set by Ferenc Puskas.
The Portuguese forward is in the midst of a stupendous battle with our own Lionel Messi for every award, both individual and collective. Neither deserves to truly lose, and despite all of animosity directed towards the Real player, one cannot deny his ability. His goals record in La Liga stands at over 1 per game, a simply astounding figure for any point in history, let alone this present era.
Lionel Messi remains one step ahead of his "nemesis" and rightly so, but how would his peers react (in the Ballon D’Or voting) if Real Madrid take over Barcelona as Spanish and European champions? I hope we never find out, but these are the whispers coming from many analysts across the globe.
Last night’s England vs Spain friendly was evidence that Barcelona would struggle without the Argentine and one can’t help but worry if Guardiola and Barcelona are reliant on Messi just a little too much. Bostjan’s news round-up on Saturday posed an excellent question; at least it did if you read Graham Hunter’s article on ESPN. David Villa is supposedly at war with Lionel Messi, but the column suggested that Cesc Fabregas may be the real problem...
La Liga has reached a crucial turning point with the last international break until March -- a gap that allows Spain's leading clubs to turn total focus on a series of games that will go a long way toward determining whether the season is a failure or a thing of joy and beauty to behold.
Will Fabregas become a certain starter by the time of the first Clasico? Speaking of, what exactly has the start of the season told us about El Clasico? The gap is at three points, or one victory. Real are not going to drop many points during the course of the season, but the hectic schedule in January and February could change that.
Dare I say it? Make it official? The League looks set to come down to the two Clasicos, the first in December and the second in April. Unlike previous seasons under Pep, the second is at the Camp Nou, and this could prove vital. Guardiola is yet to lose a Clasico at home or at the Bernabeu for that matter, and this has got to be eating at Mourinho.
His best efforts have thus far been vanquished by the Blaugrana, whether he tries to take the game to them, or distract them with claims of UEFA conspiracies. Has the Special One run out of ideas? It can be claimed that Real were close to their best in the pre-season Supercopa showdown, and they still lost. Sure, they could equally have won, but lady luck was with Barcelona, and who knows? Maybe that injury-time goal against Bilbao is a signal that luck remains on our side.
That Supercopa saw Madrid bombard Barca with an asphyxiatingly high-line of pressure, lightening quick counter attacks all the while still maintaining the physical mentality that caused so many problems last season. Up against a visibly ill-prepared Barcelona side and Lionel Messi still made the difference despite no pre-season training. Madrid have kept up that same approach in their matches this season, and are refining those tactics further.
However, one could argue that Madrid are getting used to their dominance, and this could prove to be their downfall. Possession levels are creeping up to the 65% mark and above, a figure they would not dream of against Barcelona. As a result they are making more chances and it doesn’t matter if they miss a few along the way. They can afford a couple of lapses in concentration (see Osasuna’s goal) and subconsciously it might be having an effect.
Can they afford a lapse in concentration against the Blaugrana? Is it fathomable that Benzema or Ronaldo can miss a couple of shots and Madrid still emerges victorious? I highly doubt it, and Mourinho must hone all of his available skill into the change in tactics and how to minimise errors. While it is difficult to see Barcelona struggle through matches, at least they are being tested, and at least they are upholding the same style of play, one which will force Real to play defensively.
I hesitate to call Barcelona the favourites, but I have not seen enough to claim Madrid will have an edge either. More than any other game, it will all boil down to who is better on the day, and I have experienced many "big game" triumphs for Barcelona so my gut is leaning ever so slightly towards a Blaugrana win.
In other news, prodigal talent Neymar has signed a new (albeit shorter) contract with Santos and the Catalan press is claiming victory in the race to sign the Brazilian. If true, I am really excited for this deal, as a few more years in Brazil will enable Barcelona to monitor his progress. It will allow Neymar to mature, and when the time is ready, he will make the transition to the top level. That’s a story for another day, perhaps we can revisit around the time of the Club World Cup...
Here’s hoping that the remainder of the international break is kind to our players fitness and that this time next week the boys will be celebrating a win over Real Zaragoza!
Visca el Barca!