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Mourinho masterclass?

I thought the Clasico was a good game, even an interesting game, and I seem to have been engaged in arguments about it all Sunday. I guess they'll continue until Wednesday night, when we get the next instalment in the quartet - namely the small matter of the Copa del Rey at Valencia's Mestalla stadium.

Before we look at the press reaction to the 1-1 draw in the Bernabow late on Saturday night, it's worth considering the argument thrown my way on Sunday afternoon by an ex-Spanish football manager in deepest Guernica that it was a disgrace to see Real Madrid playing a crude version of catenaccio, ceding 80% possession to the visiting team and relying on a mixture of counter-attack and dead-ball situations.

Add to that the fact that the visiting team were Barcelona (a real Madridista, the theory goes, never implies or admits that the Catalans are superior - it cost Bernd Schuster his job); Madrid's most imaginative player, Mesut Ozil, was on the bench; Pepe was playing as a minesweeper in midfield, patrolling Lionel Messi's movements; Xabi Alonso was pushed up higher than usual, marking Xavi; and Sami Khedira's main job was to snuff out Andres Iniesta, it seemed that Madrid had not really come to play football. Disgrace!

The slight problem with the argument is that they almost won the match. They certainly boosted their psychological preparation with regard to the next three games, and staunched the flow of defeats they have suffered against their great rivals. And all that with ten men. Disgrace? I don't quite get it. Mourinho tried to take on Barcelona at their own game in the Camp Nou back in November, and was pilloried for the team's impotent showing in a 5-0 defeat. Since then his team has gelled rather well, but nobody has found a solution as to how to stop Guardiola's side, so why should he be attacked now for trying a different approach?

Of course, Barcelona had the ball for a scandalous percentage of the game, and there were periods when Madrid didn't touch the ball for over four minutes, but the visitors didn't really worry them in the last third, save the Messi chip and the possible penalty on David Villa. Madrid's rather frantic counter-attacks, launched at such dizzying speed that even their own players found it hard to cope, did nevertheless bear fruit in terms of chances, and the Barcelona goal had several wobbly moments in the first half.

For the Catalan press, Pepe was a crude monster, the symbol of Madrid's new decadence - allowed to get away with murder on Messi and others, whereas from the capital's perspective, he was wonderfully efficient and kept the Catalan hordes at bay.

So Ozil came on after 57 minutes and showed us all how silly Mourinho's strategy had been all along? I find that rather simplistic. For starters, Barcelona had to re-group when Carles Puyol went off a minute later, and Sergio Busquets dropped deeper where he is less effective. It's true that Ozil's ability to hold onto the ball began to worry the visitors, but there was no guarantee that this would have happened in the first half. Ozil is not about barnstorming counter-attack - he's a prober. You do one thing or the other. Mourinho decided on a more extreme approach, and if Khedira had hit his late shot anywhere other than at Valdes' body, Mourinho would now be being hailed as a genius.

I thought Madrid were, in a sense, the better side. They set out their chess pieces with a defensive but nevertheless coherent conviction, fell behind to a silly penalty but were then perfectly capable of switching to another approach when the context demanded it. Barcelona just did their usual metronomic stuff, but not as well. I see no point in boasting 80% possession if you only score one goal and almost lose the game to ten men. Hats off to Mourinho. The Copa del Rey final will now be very interesting indeed. Which approach will Madrid adopt? Will Guardiola care? Someone will ask him on Tuesday evening.

Of course, all this ignores the fact that Barcelona all but sealed the title race on Saturday night, and therefore triumphed in that sense at least. Hats off to them as well. But hardly anyone has commented on this, as if it were of secondary importance to the nature of the duel itself, and the three subsequent games to come. Also, as Mourinho said, it would be interesting to see the game played 11 versus 11. Strange to see Raul Albiol receive a straight red and Dani Alves not even a yellow for his foul on Marcelo. You begin to see Mourinho's point about a lack of balance in the criteria applied by referees to the two teams.

The dark side of all this is that in the long term (over the four matches) a similar approach by Real Madrid will begin to look a tad defeatist. Against everyone else you play one way, but against Barcelona you don't trust yourselves to play open football. The Madrid faithful may find the pragmatic approach acceptable on occasions, but may find it hard to swallow that the world's best player of his type, Xabi Alonso, is being employed as a pack hound, Angel Di Maria as an extra full back, and Ozil chews gum on the bench. Jorge Valdano, his face set in stone in the palco, will begin to twitch uncontrollably - and dream of early retirement in Patagonia - as his nightmares finally come true.

Last Friday, Mourinho turned up for the press conference with Aitor Karanka, his deputy-in-chief, and directed the journalists' questions to the ex-Bilbao man, the idea being that this would make it impossible for anyone to twist his own words into pre-match provocations. The masses of international journalists, gathered to hear the words of the wise one, had most reason to be peeved, but nevertheless stayed, whilst the Spanish contingent, a majority from Madrid, staged a walkout.

On Saturday night, the Portuguese man-o-war, in characteristically stinging form, replied to a Marca journalist's question that he wasn't going to talk to him (for displaying a lack of respect to Karanka) but that he would speak to his editor-in-chief (Eduardo Inda) - the implication being that on walking out, the journalists had not been doing their jobs, which was technically correct. Is Mourinho obliged to speak, on the terms of his contract? Probably not. La Liga demands that a representative of the club attend to the press, nothing more.

Mourinho is, however, playing a risky game. Others have tried to take on the hounds, and been savaged to death in the end. It was also a strange encounter because up to now, the Spanish press in general has benefitted massively from the Madrid manager's presence, his daily soundbites, his sense of humour and his ability to stir every hornets' nest in the country. But it was as if he had decided on open warfare, and so far he is winning. But it might not be too wise to continue down a path of confrontation. In the past - for Toshack, Capello, Schuster, Luxemburgo, Queiroz - it has always ended in tears.

Elsewhere, on some other distant planet, Valencia continued to prove their credentials with a 3-0 stroll at bottom side Almeria, and Sevilla slipped up at struggling Getafe, to complicate their ambitions of catching fourth-placed Villarreal, who can now put further distance between them if they beat Zaragoza on Monday night. Down in the nether regions, with the relegation cut-off still on 33, 11 sides sleep uneasily, right up to Mallorca in tenth place.

There is still plenty of interest in La Liga, and this week's Copa del Rey final - the first between the big two since Barca won 2-0 in 1990 - should be a cracker. Spookily enough, the last time they met was at the Mestalla, a game that saw the dying light of the Quinta del Buitre and Madrid's hegemony of the 1980s. It also seems odd that in almost 90 years of professional cup competitions in Spain, the big two have only met five times in the final. Barcelona have the edge, 3-2. It would take a brave person, with the exception of Sandro Rosell of course, to predict Wednesday's outcome.


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