Putting it simply, what is there left to lose for Jose Mourinho? The Portuguese manager has come under heavy criticism from his own fans, the media and reportedly his own players for his tactics in El Clasico, so much so, that one journalist reported on Punto Pelota that The Special One has had enough and will leave his post in the summer. All the while, pep Guardiola looks more and more likely to continue for at least one more season, although no official decision has been made of yet.
Guardiola appears relaxed, and privately he is thanking his team, his backroom staff and everyone at the club for making his life so much easier. Pep has reportedly said that he couldn’t do it without them and that the work of his staff is giving him the energy to continue for another year. While Culés around the world cross their fingers and wait for the good news, Mourinho must feel as though he can’t catch a break.
His side remain five points ahead of Barcelona, a side that are among the greatest of all-time, and recent Clasicos have been far more encouraging for Real Madrid, even if they have ended in defeat. The controversial coach remains an excellent manager, this much must be admitted, and his media handling remains exemplary.
Speaking in the pre-match press conference, Mourinho was as cagey as ever, refusing to give anything away. The media asked about literally everything, "Are you going to leave Jose?" "Is there a rift in the camp?" "What about these leaks then?" "Will Pepe play at the Camp Nou?". No topic was left untouched by the assembled journalists, but they left empty-handed, grasping at straws; feeding off the crumbs that Mourinho allowed them with his answers.
It was an astute move by the Real Madrid manager, a veterans move perhaps, one which could be construed as personification of the problems in the camp, but I tend to see it as a way of deflecting the pressure away from his players, and firmly unto himself. Sure, the pressure mounting on Mourinho is now getting to an unsustainable level, but his players will be free to play without the substantial pressure they usually face in a Clasico.
On top of that, it does a couple more things for Real Madrid and Mourinho. Firstly, if Mourinho goes out to attack and loses, he can use it as a "told you so" moment, which itself would relieve pressure and show the players who have been asking for an attacking approach that Mourinho does indeed know best. Secondly, if they win, just as the pressure is all on Mourinho, all the credit will go to Jose, for either "taking a risk" or "sticking to his guns". The headlines have already been written, the match tomorrow is merely to find out which one goes to print.
That’s enough about Real Madrid, what about FC Barcelona? As I remarked yesterday, this match could prove to be a turning point in the season, depending on the result of course, although all of the above hints that Mourinho has found a way to lessen the impact of tomorrow’s game. All in all, the tie appears more finely poised than ever, and considering there has not really been a "proper" Clasico at the Camp Nou this season, we really cannot even begin to guess how the game will turn out.
Fear of the unknown.
That unknown quantity is mostly what makes the rest of the football world watch, quite simply anything can happen. Eye-pokes? Check. Mesmeric goals? Check. Amateur dramatics? Double check. Sure, a Clasico isn’t for everyone, but for most it is a fascinating watch, and if you laugh off the unsavoury incidents, heck, even with them in the match it adds to the entertainment. Quite simply there is nothing like watching the best players in the world duke it out.
Well, the best players in the world, and Jose Pinto. The eccentric Spaniard will start in goal tomorrow for the Catalans, and despite the flak he is receiving for his first leg performance, Pinto will continue to play in the same way, even if that does lead to a record number of heart problems in Cataluña. His distribution is nowhere near as good as Victor Valdes, but most people forget that Valdes is far and away the best in that particular skill, so any back-up keeper would pale in comparison.
Defensively there is a question mark surrounding the formation Pep Guardiola will choose to implement, and despite my article yesterday, I think he will go for the safe option: the 4-3-3. With Dani Alves on the right-hand side Barcelona will still maintain that attacking threat down the wing, while ensuring that the defense does not suffer. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique are clearly the two favourites to start at centre-back tomorrow, and the pairing are yet to lose together since the pointless second leg with Wisla Krakow at the start of Pep’s reign.
Eric Abidal showed his character by recently giving away his Rolex, as well as visiting a teenage cancer patient in hospital, and tomorrow, he will be looking to contain whoever starts on the right for Madrid. That could mean a duel with Mesut Ozil, Jose Callejon or even a rematch with Angel Di Maria, who gave the Frenchman a torrid time back in December’s Clasico for the opening half or so. Whatever the case, Abidal’s form has improved markedly since his contract renewal and we all hope that it continues for some time yet.
In midfield, there are no question marks, no doubts whatsoever; the trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta have proved too strong for Real for many a year now, and tomorrow is unlikely to be the exception, especially if Mourinho decides to fight fire with fire. It doesn’t matter who the opposition is: Xabi Alonso, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Cesc Fabregas, Frank Lampard, the list could go on forever, simply no-one escapes from a battle with the Barcelona triumvirate with their dignity intact. World Cup winners, seasoned veterans, none can even come close to matching the Barcelona carousel.
Add in Cesc Fabregas if Guardiola opts for the 3-4-3, and you have the best midfield not just in the present day, but arguably of all-time. It is where each Clasico has been won, and will continue to be won if Mourinho cannot find an answer, which suits me just fine.
Offensively, Barcelona are lacking in options, with Pedro likely to start on the bench given his recent injury struggles, and obviously David Villa and Ibrahim Afellay are on the long-term absentee list. That leaves Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez, Isaac Cuenca and Cesc Fabregas, with Alves and Adriano two possible options if need be.
Merely because Cesc has been such a revelation since his arrival, I find my love for the 3-4-3 growing, if only to accommodate the La Masia graduate. However, he has been finding success in the 4-3-3 in recent times, operating as a midfielder with Andres Iniesta taking up position on the left. This proved particularly potent in the second half of last week’s Clasico, and I sense the same approach will be favoured tomorrow.
Alexis Sanchez was impressive last week with his ghosting runs behind the defense, and his strength in holding off the tackles, so the Chilean will certainly start on the right, with Lionel Messi looking to get on the scoresheet from his space in the false #9 position. His performance last week was arguably one of his quieter Clasicos in a while, but he still managed to assist Abidal’s winner, influencing play from the middle of the field instead of the forward-line. Tomorrow’s match is at the Camp Nou, and all that extra space will be to Messi’s advantage. I have a feeling that the Argentine will treat us to something special tomorrow. Here’s hoping anyway. Barcelona’s season could depend upon it.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-1, with Messi grabbing a couple either side of a Madrid goal, before Cesc puts the icing on the cake late on.