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Jan 29, 2013

Wounded and dangerous, Real Madrid face Barca in Copa del Rey Clasico

The Oxford Dictionary defines a sporting handicap as "a disadvantage imposed on a superior competitor in sports such as golf, horse racing, and competitive sailing in order to make the chances more equal." Going in to Wednesday's Clasico, the fourth of the season, Real Madrid lie 15 points behind the league leaders, have lost seven games in all competitions and have been dogged by controversy pretty much since August. Barcelona: record-breakers, league leaders, three defeats all season and possessing a striker who has 43 goals since August. They also have five wins, two draws and just one defeat in their past eight visits to the Santiago Bernabeu. On the face of it, in this hypothesis at least, it should certainly be the Catalan club which is given a handicap to make the contest -- a Copa del Rey first-leg tie -- even. Yet in real life it is, unquestionably, Jose Mourinho's side that has added poundage to carry. No Iker Casillas -- either Adan or Diego Lopez will make their Clasico debut. No Sergio Ramos or Pepe -- Madrid's first-choice central defenders will be absent, suspended and injured.

Then there is the anarchy of indiscipline -- Fabio Coentrao and Angel di Maria will both also be missing because of suspension earned via red cards. Prima facie this should be an open-and-shut case -- Barcelona to win, Real Madrid to limp into the return leg at the Camp Nou on Feb. 27 before the second La Liga fixture between the two teams at the Bernabeu on March 3 -- all of which, you might think, could end with Mourinho being sacked, or at least ending his chances of having a dignified exit at Real Madrid. Well, count me out of that logic.

I liked the respect shown for Los Blancos by Barca's legendary winger Charly Rexach, once Johan Cruyff's assistant in the Dream Team era. "There is no Real Madrid side more dangerous than a wounded one," he said pregame. I well remember back in November 2008 with Bernd Schuster just sacked, Pepe, Marcelo, Arjen Robben, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Lassana Diarra, Mahamadou Diarra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all missing for one reason or another, Madrid turned up at the Camp Nou for what was Pep Guardiola's first Clasico as a coach. It was a torrid, torrid battle and with seven minutes left it was still 0-0. By force of pride and effort Madrid just would not be beaten. Casillas saved a penalty and to me it was the essence of what a wounded, patched-up team can do when it needs to rise to the occasion. Eventually Samuel Eto'o and Messi edged the home side home, but it was ridiculously tight.

Another came in April 2003. Twelfth-placed Barcelona, only seven points off second-bottom, went to the Bernabeu to face rampant league leaders Madrid, which had scored 20 goals more and conceded nine fewer. They should have been lambs to the slaughter, but with Thiago Motta limpet-marking Zinedine Zidane (via fair means and foul), the Madrid of Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Fernando Hierro, Raul, Roberto Carlos and Zizou were somehow contained 1-1. It may be cross-country rather than cross-city but make no mistake -- this is a derby match. Obstacles don't matter; current form is reduced as a factor. Instead, attitude, hunger and errors assume titanic importance. You'd imagine that Mourinho will line up his side something like Adan or perhaps even Diego Lopez, along with: Alvaro Arbeloa, Ricardo Carvalho, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso, Jose Maria Callejon, Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema. Not only does that go to show, with so much five-star material unavailable, how strong Los Blancos' squad is, I'd say that's a starting XI most coaches would give their eyeteeth to possess. Ronaldo -- as I mentioned in this column before the last couple of Clasicos, when he mustered another four goals -- has got Barca's measure. In fact, he's now hit the net seven times in their past six meetings. Ozil is a majestic player full of geometric vision of moves which most players are blind to, but he sees four or five seconds in advance. I'm told, and firmly believe, that right up until the last day when he put pen to paper for Madrid, Ozil's agent was beseeching Barcelona to come in and snaffle the German. Ozil, it seems, felt that the brand of football played at the Camp Nou would fit his sensibilities better. "Gracias, pero no" was the Barca answer and now, quite justifiably, Ozil seems to reserve his most devastating, entertaining and intelligent football for when he sees the Blaugrana shirts in front of him. Usually he's worth the admission money on his own. It's also the case that Alonso and Khedira are playing at or very near the top of their game. Each has scored in recent Clasicos and they possess the height and power to ruffle the league leaders. Then there is the Madrid coach. Shrouded in ever-increasing controversy it has been tempting, in recent months, to finish his S.W.O.T analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) with negative numbers for the first time since April 2011 when he so mishandled the ‘world series' of Clasicos. The prediction made by Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano (now united at Man City, if you'll pardon the expression) in 2008 that hiring Mourinho for Barcelona might well bring success but wasn't worth the price of constant scandal, polemic and energy-sapping fire-fighting all over the place looked to be bearing fruit. But only the one-eyed or the plain stupid could ignore that he has found a formula that Barcelona don't like. It dates back not to his Chelsea days, when he simply had a team that was terrifically good and was capable of making it horribly hard for Barcelona to impose its more delicate skills. But Mourinho's game plan was implemented in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semifinal, when, as he admitted subsequently, he ordered his Inter Milan side to adopt long-ball tactics. Not hit and hope, position-of-maximum-opportunity soccer -- not at all.

Back then, he asked the deep midfield passers to take every early opportunity, when the ball was regained with Barcelona high up the pitch, to launch raking diagonal balls into the area just to the left or right of the visiting centre backs, who would be pushed up to within 10 metres of the half way line.

Mourinho had sussed that there is oodles of space left by the Barca full backs, who act as auxiliary wingers. He also realized that neither Gerard Pique nor Carles Puyol was particularly comfortable being asked to see the ball sailing over his head, to turn and to chase back. Mourinho figured that the percentage chance of errors occurring would increase. He was correct.

Not sailing over their heads so far that Victor Valdes could race out and play his sweeper keeper role -- simply into areas where Inter's striker could chase, harry and, if he won possession, set up an inside pass for teammates who were to stream forward more quickly than Dani Alves and Maxwell could get back. All other circumstances aside, Inter won 3-1 and implemented their boss's tactics to perfection. At Madrid, Mourinho initially believed that stylistic niceties would prevent him from asking the team to play like this, but after the horrors of a 5-0 defeat and elimination from the Champions League semifinal, he adapted. Madrid began to launch the ball over the heads of Pique, Puyol or Mascherano, and things started to click. Results at the Camp Nou began to emerge: 1-1, 2-2, narrow 3-2 defeats and then a 2-1 win last May.

Playing Barcelona at the Bernabeu had been torture, not simply because Guardiola's team had shed all neuroses about winning there but because the home crowd had lost faith, grew impatient at the drop of a hat and a general climate of fear existed. But last August in the Supercup second leg, Madrid might easily have scored seven or eight times. Again and again Madrid made passes that might have been cut and pasted straight from Inter Milan 3-1 Barcelona two years previously.

Forty-metre diagonal passes from right to left, over the heads of the central defenders and into the path of, usually, Marcelo streaking forward down the left touchline. One right over Mascherano's head that made him fluff his clearance for Gonzalo Higuain to power through and score. The second goal is another heat-seeker that isolates Pique one-on-one with Ronaldo … who scores. A just final score might have been in the region of 7-3 Madrid.

Another thing to bear in mind is that even though Madrid noticeably have a problem defending set plays themselves, a high proportion of their recent goals against Barcelona have come from a player in white winning an aerial challenge in the box -- either to score or to create a goal assist. Khedira, Ronaldo, Alonso, Varane, Albiol and Benzema all remain quite capable of using that resource on Wednesday night.

Thus, for the neutral, it seems pretty damn annoying that this contest will unravel without Casillas, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao or Di Maria.

Barcelona have been significantly better than Madrid since August, significantly better than everyone else actually, and this might have been an absolutely classic Clasico. The reigning champions have very little to lose. The league can be presumed to be gone, the all-or-nothing run of fixtures at the end of February and beginning of March are still in the middle distance, so a good performance in this tie would be the perfect pep-up for the visit of Manchester United in a fortnight in the Champions League. But instead of a like-for-like contest, Madrid are going to have to dig very deep as they face a relatively in-form Barca side, with Xavi promising "We'll be looking to score as many as possible in order to set up a tie at home where we can finish things off."

Should Madrid be able to dig that deep and carve out a positive result, in the full knowledge that their recent results at the Camp Nou have been more than acceptable, then Barcelona's surge toward what I think is a potential trophy treble will be in jeopardy.

Tito Vilanova is in New York undergoing pretty radical anti-cancer treatment -- we wish him well. Jordi Roura is new to the post and it's yet to be proven how he handles the maelstrom of a Clasico.

So has he, or have the Barca players, figured out how it is that Madrid are causing them so much grief? And have they crafted a solution or will they, as you'd suspect, stick to the philosophy that "We'll take your missiles and rockets aimed at the space we leave at the back and simply attempt to outscore you?"

Honestly, even if this is the fifteenth Clasico since Mourinho joined Madrid and even if there might be up to four more before the season ends, it's the kind of contest on which most of us would quite happily gorge ourselves every month or so.

If they perform to their level and if they exploit the important absences in Madrid's back line, then Barcelona deserve to be looked at as slight favourites. But if they doze, are complacent or if the reigning champions have a stellar night, then this should be an epic contest.

It threatens to set the tone for the remainder of the season for both sides. Don't miss it.

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