El Clasico: Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona: Q&A with Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter is one of the few men to have been granted a one-on-one interview with Pep Guardiola

Here at Barca Blaugranes, we simply cannot wait for El Clasico. There are so many talking points, so many questions, but fortunately we have managed to ask an expert just what they think about this weekend’s game. Graham Hunter took the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions and provide a little insight into the mindset of each camp, as well as giving his own opinion on a variety of things. It was a pleasure to work with Graham, and I hope you enjoy learning just a little more about FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Before we get started with the Clasico and recent La Liga events, can you tell us a little more about your upcoming book: "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World"?

I’ve lived and worked in Spain for about ten years now. Last January I wrote a long article for the Sunday Herald about why, despite it being obvious that Leo Messi was the best player in the world and would certainly win the Ballon D’Or, I thought that Xavi merited the award that year. A few weeks later these enthusiastic, interesting publishers, Back Page Press, phoned me out of the blue to say that they’d swept all their previous ideas off the table that year in the hope that I could reproduce the tone and depth of content in a book about the Guardiola years at FC Barcelona. Using all the maturity I’ve gathered over the years I thought for about half a minute and, regardless of what I was taking on, said "Super".

The synopsis mentions that you are the only English-speaking man to have interviewed Pep Guardiola on a one-to-one basis in his managerial career: what can you tell us about the great man and his personality? I struggle to believe that he is always as reserved as his public persona suggests...

Just before Guardiola became a coach he spent some time ‘walking the earth’ a là David Carradine in Kung Fu. He ended up, along with his great friend and creative muse David Trueba, over in Argentina where he had a long seminar round Marcelo Bielsa’s house. They ate barbecued Argentinian steaks and drank red wine and talked football, football, football. Part of Bielsa’s advice was that if he became a coach, particularly at Barça or any very sizeable club was to avoid one on one interviews which would drag him into ‘owing’ the other media who demanded parity of access and which would eat into his working time. Guardiola is VERY generous with his Press Conference time – often giving four and a half hours per week when there are three matches per week. However he has largely stuck to that idea about not giving individual interviews. I am fortunate in that Uefa.com nominated me to do two pre Champions League final interviews which were published in the match programme. Each took place in his office. Enjoyable but more intriguing than fully enlightening. I would also point out that there are one or two of his closest Catalan journalist friends who still dine out with him when he needs to feed out a few messages or glean a bit of info from people who have their ear to the ground journalistically.

Is the title your words or the publishers? Just curious as I presume it may have made life a little more difficult if you have visited Madrid...

Firstly I’ll live with the title. I try very hard to mean what I say when I write or broadcast. We will all make mistakes; express ourselves poorly etc from time to time. But when I say things strongly it’s always because I mean it and I feel it’s honest and accurate. NOT for effect or to garner attention. However in this case the title was offered to me and I accepted.

Starting with more recent events, it is safe to say Barcelona are getting back to their best given that comfortable win over Levante. How much of that was down to the Barcelona performance, or are we witnessing the beginning of the end for Levante after their early season exploits?

Depending on when this is published I don’t think I agree. I think Barca have played to their full potential about once this season, the Supercup Second leg. The performance against Levante was crisper, quicker and closer to their DNA, but not full tilt by any means. Look at the pace and vitality which the introduction of Cuenca and Alexis have given and which Pedro will give. Iniesta back and on decent form meant that there was a whole new vibe to a team which has been prone to giving the ball away, hasn’t pressed well and is looking slack instead of slick. As for Levante, it bemuses me how much people are keen to rush to look for a bubble bursting. They are intelligent, organised and experienced. They will remain difficult to beat in Valencia and won’t often get a doing on the road. Injuries to key players would be a worry but until that happens they will remain a stubborn proposition for most teams.

Madrid meanwhile coasted to a relatively straight-forward win over Sporting Gijon, who have caused them problems in previous years. Now this is clearly the best Real Madrid for some time, how far will a victory in El Clasico go to cementing their place as one of the all-time great Los Blanco sides?

It’s way too soon to be talking about that in anything other than VERY provisional terms. They look devastatingly confident, quick, aggressive and purposeful these days and good to watch as far as I’m concerned. But they first have to start winning a regular supply of trophies to meet your description I think. Also how well do they cope without Alonso? Not so well I’d say. All time great is a huge term; they are not ready for that discussion yet. What victory might cement is the title. Not arithmetically, obviously. Not enough to stop Barça from competing their butts off. But if they won the Clasico and then their game in hand and went nine clear then it would take the mother of all comebacks, including a haemorrhaging of points from Madrid that I find tough to imagine.

Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho really are two exceptional managers, each are so vital to their club’s success. Which man would you say is more important to their respective club, and just how long do you think each will stay in La Liga?

Clearly the answer is Guardiola. Madrid have shown two or three different playing styles under Mourinho and it’s an expensively assembled squad in the traditional manner which has sustained the majority of ‘great’ clubs in history. You could put Lippi, Ferguson, Capello or Davie Moyes in charge and whatever that coach asked this squad to do it could change its playing style, change the formation and adapt. They are highly paid pros who have all played in other clubs under other systems with a completely different ethos. Guardiola is in charge of a custom made squad all of whom have either been reared or bought to meet absolutely specific criteria. He is tailor made for this group, both in his understanding of how most of them were taught to play and also in how to get the best from them.

My personal opinion is that unless Mourinho wins a major title this season Madrid will have to break their recent character to be strong enough to vest faith in him again. If he’s a winning coach by the end of this season then, again, my opinion is that his central goal is to manage Manchester United and only an absolutely extraordinary offer could deflect him from that goal.

As for Josep Guardiola, I don’t know and I’m not sure he does either.

Barcelona have been simply amazing at the Camp Nou, save for the Javi Varas game, but they can't get it going on the road. Any particular reason Barcelona find it difficult (at least more difficult than in recent memory) to play away from home?

The key thing is what possession they have and what they do with it. Mental sharpness and physical sharpness (plus stamina) are absolutely key to the Barca style under Guardiola. They don’t have it so far this season, largely because of the pre season I believe but partly because this is a group of players which has been squeezed to the last pip over recent seasons. Look at how many times per game, particularly away from home, FCB give the ball away or have it robbed from them compared to their absolute peak under Guardiola. There is difference of about thirty – mid to high sixties of wasted possession compared to high eighties to low nineties this season. The lack of goals, is down to that. The goals conceded to make a win a draw and a draw a loss are down to that. Personally I think that for a team which regularly talks about the importance of automatismos the things that they do automatically without thinking because of long, long hours of practice to keep changing the defence so regularly is self defeating.

By the time Barça had played fourteen games they had used the same back line twice and had used eight different defensive lines – whether three men or four men a different combination eight times. That leads to small mistakes in movement, communication, decisions etc.

Is David Villa misused by Pep Guardiola or is he past his very best?

David Villa remains exceptional in my view. I think that if you look at his age and how heavily he’s been used by club and country over the last few years and how few times he’s had an break caused by injury then all we are seeing right now is a central striker who has been forced to play wide by the greatest modern footballer and who, in recent weeks, has lacked just a scintilla of sharpness. No more than that. Look at his big game goal record and his total goals per game record for FCB given where he plays and how much of a focus there is on getting the ball to Messi and I think Villa measures up well. A very, very diligent, intelligent and important footballer.

With English clubs failing to truly inspire in the Champions League, many are thinking that the "Big Two" in Spain are the only two sides in with a real chance to claim the trophy. Are you of the same opinion, and how would you rate Barcelona’s chances of becoming the first side to retain the title in its current format?

No. I only really believe in the chances of three, maximum four teams to win it. Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and one of the English sides. I thought City would be brutal opponents if they made it past the group stage. So now I only truly believe in three sides as potential winners if City are out by the time this prints.

It seems that Real Madrid struggle more when they miss a player like Xabi Alonso or Angel Di Maria than when they miss Cristiano Ronaldo. Why is that so?

I disagree. Di Maria is a player who produces exceptional moments and can make a huge difference to the cutting edge Madrid possess but RM can still play without him. No question. Alonso shoulders so much responsibility – for football intelligence and for positional play that RM thus far find it hard to replace him. But he’s several years older than the majority of his central midfield team mates, that’s the flaw. Perhaps Khedira will one day carry similar weight of responsibilities, perhaps Sahin will settle quickly and offer the passing range. But the tackling? The Leadership? We will see. I think RM have bought insufficiently well to cover this Alonso dependence. What they HAVE done is find a different way to play. The speed of use of the ball from a breakdown situation when the other team is caught upfield is, I think, an antidote to the problem.

But Ronaldo remains exceptional. His goals, total and at vital moments, speak for themselves. But I think the key development is that Madrid were not getting the best from him and are now. Sir Alex Ferguson recognised much, much more about Ronaldo’s potential than I think Mourinho did in the first season of coaching him. Ronaldo was often seen as too individual or ‘in competition’ with other players for team dominance. Now there is a system which gets the ball to him more quickly, which demands that he both creates assists and scores goals. His generosity with what he does with the ball is at a high since he arrived in Spain and certain team mates, particularly Kakà and Benzema, patently adore playing with him.

Iker Casillas has been a fixture for La Furia Roja for over a decade, but some of his recent performances have been well below his high standards (especially the game against Costa Rica) which warrants the question: Does Sant Iker still deserve the nod in net over Victor Valdes?

Yes. No question. I challenge anyone to show that they have been a greater supporter of Victor Valdés for several years now. A fantastic keeper and a ferocious competitor who has probably been Barcelona’s single most consistent footballer over the last six or seven years. But Iker is Iker. A world class keeper, a very, very good leader and someone who still deserves to keep the number one spot. And I think if you asked Valdés he’d say the same.

Who do you think will be the key players on both teams?

Valdes, Xavi, Messi. In the seven Clásicos since it has been Pep v José Messi is the star player. Six goals and four assists. Iker Casillas ALWAYS nominates Xavi as the player he’d remove from the Barça side if he could – I agree. If he controls the play Barça are harder to contain and harder to damage. Valdés. Because Barça have been completely dominant since May 2008 people forget, I think, how many one on one saves Valdés made at crucial times in matches against Madrid. He’s had a couple of bumps in recent matches. If he’s on form Barcelona have greatly improved chances in a game where they have to start as second favourites.

For Madrid there are key players in both senses. Marcelo gets a massive press because he’s an athlete and a buccaneering attacking player. But he’s got the positional sense of Mark Thatcher in the desert. If you look at his role in the two Messi goals in last season’s Champions Leage first semi final he’s badly exposed. Then look at his still worse performance in Pedro’s goal in the next semi final he cannot afford that luxury against Barça. However in an attacking sense he won the penalty in the second league Clasico, he helped create the Cup final winning goal and he scores in the Champions League semi final second leg. Which Marcelo will RM get this time?

Benzema’s greatly increased sharpness in the last two Clasicos, scoring in each and looking like a tremendously intelligent link player marks him down as a key for Madrid.

The other Key for Madrid is Mourinho. He has a team (and a squad) which is in sufficient form, which is fit enough and has enough confidence to win. He made some bad tactical and personal choices last season which didn’t help his side. He needs to punch his weight this Saturday.

How do you think the game will pan out - will it be hard fought, almost difficult to watch like the El Clasicos from last season thanks possibly to the "Trivote" or will we see an entertaining game as we did in the Supercopa this year (not counting the last ten minutes of the return leg)?

I found each and every one of the contests last season, and this, completely riveting so you are speaking to the wrong man about difficult to watch contests. How it will be played will depend partly on formations. Formations might depend on who is fit. The UCL games this week MIGHT yet yield unexpected injuries. We will see. So predictions will have to wait. But I will be stunned if RM don’t attempt to go for the jugular with a high tempo performance which seeks to achieve the first goal and to do so early. I’ll be surprised if RM don’t attempt to play the ball very directly, very rapidly.

Barça will look for superiority in midfield and to control the ball better than they have done so far this season. I’d expect them to try to punish Marcelo’s wandering. The Alves, Messi, Alexis combination will be something they try to promote.

How is the general feeling in Barcelona surrounding the league and El Clasico? Are they optimistic or accepting that things may get quite difficult?

Most people who support Barcelona are, I think, resigned to starting this game second favourites but also happy to put faith in people like Messi, Guardiola, Xavi and Iniesta.

Care to stick your neck out and give a prediction?

Madrid should win and if they don’t I’ll be fascinated to understand why.

Is it safe to say that the winner of this match takes the upper hand in the battle to win La Liga?

Yes if it’s Madrid, no if it’s Barcelona.

Quickfire questions:

Benzema or Higuain?

I would use both. Don’t think Mourinho will.

4-3-3 or 3-4-3?

If you mean for Barcelona then I would, without question, use the 4-3-3 starting format which reverts to two cental defenders plus Busquets while the wing backs press on which worked so well for Guardiola in recent seasons.

Cuenca or Sanchez (or both)?

Sanchez

Ozil or Kaka?

Hmm. Ozil because he’s earned it and because Kakà has only just returned. But Kakà could yet be a game clincher if he enters a stretched game. Has occasionally looked imperious again this season once fit.

Park the bus or go for it?

Madrid or Barcelona? If you mean Madrid there is no question, and I’ve tried to make clear that this is their opportunity to be true to their history and get after Barça (football wise, not physically). If you mean Barcelona then I’m certain that controlling the ball and doing Barcelona-esque things with it is the key. No wasted possession, no mental slackness – if they avoid that then we have a game.

Should Cesc start, and who instead of?

I’d pick a Barcelona lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Villa.

I’d pick a Madrid lineup of Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Alonso, Khedira; Ronaldo, Ozil, Benzema; Higuain

Just my opinión.

Messi or Ronaldo?

I defend Ronaldo a great deal because in my experience he’s a bright, friendly, interesting player who is producing landmark football and who is a dedicated pro. People who snipe at him because he’s a showman and because he’s a pretty boy who’s not short on confidence should go and get a personality transplant or get out of the media as far as I’m concerned. However Messi is completely off the scale. One day, perhaps, we’ll talk about him as a guy who PROVED he was the best ever. Right now I’ll settle for the privilege of watching him and meeting him from time to time. Best in show.

Graham Hunter is the author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World which is available from BackPagePress on preorder and general release in January. It will also be published in eBook format. Graham writes for ESPN on a weekly basis, and the Melbourne Age as well as many other publications. You can also follow him on Twitter @BumperGraham.

For more on El Clasico, check out the SBNation coverage of Real Madrid vs Barcelona

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