Friday 23 February 2018

Barca and Madrid poised to play out private world series

Pep Guardiola has Jose Mourinho's white enemy in his sights as the old rivals prepare for a mouth-watering odyssey, says Paul Hayward

B arcelona and Real Madrid are about to stage their own private world series of four games in 18 days. There could be no better commission from a publisher than to write the story of these two great institutions around a potential quartet of fixtures in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League that will scream for our attention from April 16 to May 3.

To compress two histories into a fortnight and a half you would take a magnifying glass to Jose Mourinho's character, measure the weight of plutocratic politics above him, describe the Ronaldo-Messi star wars, delve deeper into Barca's entertainment manifesto, try to work out how good a coach Pep Guardiola is, unlock the secrets of the Nou Camp academy and set the whole tale in the context of decades of cultural and ethnic loathing. You would need to run your senses along the most intense rivalry in club football: bigger than Manchester United against Liverpool, more consuming than the Buenos Aires derby. Barca and Real Madrid are two political counterpoints, two facets of Spain, a country Catalans reject. On one side you would be privileged to watch the first three home in FIFA's Ballon d'Or -- Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- and on the other, Ronaldo, Kaka, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria.

As journalist Sid Lowe has written, the current Barca-Real duet is characterised as cantera versus cartera: youth system against wallet. In this version, royalist Spain binge-buys the world's most famous players while striving, downtrodden Barca wave an artistic proclamation at 'the white enemy'.

The nobility of the Barcelona project is authentic but when you pay to go on their stadium tour you observe the mythology going about its work. It has a distinctly commercial edge these days. Barca set Real up as the vulgar oppressor. No harm in that, but there is no huge gap between how much Real have spent on players since 2000 and what Barca have invested in non-academy talent. Lowe calculates it at €1,000m by Real against €700m by Barcelona.

Supporters of Spurs and Shakhtar Donetsk may think this presumptuous. But for a Catalan-Castilian Champions League semi-final to be inked on the page Barcelona need only to hold on to their 5-1 lead over Shakhtar and Real must retain a 4-0 advantage at White Hart Lane on Wednesday. I know where my money is.

The Real-Spurs game was the more intriguing because it reminded us how good Mourinho's team could yet be. Barcelona's sun has cast the Bernabeu in a distorting shadow. An eight-point gap heading into this weekend's La Liga games suggested a chasm. A hunch, though, is that the four-game series will not be another Barcelona pageant.

First, Real will not repeat the error of trying to close Barca down all over the pitch and allow themselves to be stretched, thus creating space for the artistes to play their triangles, as happened in the 5-0 Barcelona victory in November. Real will need a new strategy. The bus-parking, counter-attacking system used by Mourinho 12 months previously was fine for Inter Milan; but the Real cabinet would never accept the formation of a defensive block around their own penalty area and a reliance on negation.

Mourinho has to work around his club's aristocratic self-image. In July 2009, Florentino Perez regained the presidency on the slogan 'Excitement returns'. Divine right prevails. Coaches are hired not only to win but to mesmerise; not in the Barcelona sense of providing aesthetic thrills for the citizenry but more to show there could be no more regal life form than a man in a Real Madrid shirt. It is imperiousness they seek, not art for art's sake.

Cristiano Ronaldo was bought for €90m as a political statement. He was the best available footballer in the world (Messi was plainly unreachable) so Real had to have him. But there was nothing showy about the purchase of Germany's Ozil: a straight bet on youthful talent, which has paid off wonderfully. As the Spurs game illustrated, Mourinho's squad may not have the talent to pass Messi, Xavi and Iniesta into submission but he has enough top players to frustrate the tiki-taka terrors if he can just come up with the right formula.

Two attacking full-backs, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, are offered licence by the screening midfielders, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, and Ozil, Ronaldo and Di Maria form an impressive attacking triumvirate behind Emmanuel Adebayor, who has been reinvigorated by his loan move from Manchester City.

Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho guard the goal at centre-back. Karim Benzema, who had scored 12 times in 11 appearances, will return from his thigh injury, and Kaka was on the bench against Tottenham, after a long struggle against knee trouble. Gonzalo Higuain is also back in the mix.

So the gap may be narrowing. Two of the four fixtures are at the Bernabeu, a distinct advantage (the final of the Copa del Rey is at Valencia's Mestalla). What a travelogue, what an 18-day exploration, and what a comedown much of the rest of sport will feel when the drums have ceased after the last of those games.


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