Thursday 22 February 2018

Stakes higher for Madrid in cup Clasico

Pete Jensen

In the potentially volatile atmosphere of the first Clasico on neutral soil in 20 years, any literal flag-planting in the centre-circle à la Graeme Souness as Galatasaray manager in 1996 will be ill-advised tonight.

But if Jose Mourinho can steer Real Madrid to their first trophy in almost three years by beating Barcelona, a gesture of similar proportions will have been made -- you might have dominated things recently, but we're back to make sure you don't have it all your own way.

Barça are the favourites to win tonight's Copa del Rey final in Valencia, but the incentive for Real could be the difference between the two teams.

For Barca this will be just "another" trophy; for Real it will be the first one they have won since Pep Guardiola took over at the Nou Camp. And it will be Mourinho's first at the club.

"Scoring five seconds before the end would be perfect," said Jorge Valdano last night, and for once Mourinho would agree with Real's director general. The important thing is the win not the manner of the victory. The Portuguese is still walking the thin line between success and failure as Real coach and this game will go a long way to defining his first season report card.

Lose and the unthinkable trophyless first campaign looms, win and regardless of what happens between now and the end of next month he gets a 'pass' instead of a 'fail'.

Club legend Alfredo di Stefano might have raged against the Spanish giant playing "mouse" to Barcelona's "big cat" in the 1-1 La Liga draw at the weekend, and various Madrid commentators might have asked how such an expensive line-up could adopt such a defensive approach, but the Real fans only want one thing -- to beat Barcelona.

If Mourinho masterminds that tonight he will be forgiven finishing second in the league and even falling to their old rivals in the Champions League semi-finals -- his credibility in that particular competition has already been established, having guided Real to the last eight for the first time in six years.

Guardiola said last night that "Real Madrid have shown this season that they can play in many different ways," but everyone who watched Saturday's smothering of everything that moved in a red-and-blue shirt knows Mourinho's tactics will be the same in the Mestalla.

It was a year ago to the night exactly that his Internazionale side beat Barcelona 3-1 at San Siro in the Champions League with the perfect anti-Barça performance -- impeccable defending, lightning counter attacks down both sides of an often under-manned defence and lethal finishing.

Organisers are also holding their breath to see the level of respect, or lack of it, shown from the 20,000 Barça fans to the Spanish national anthem.

"We've won your league, now we are going to win your King's Cup," Gerard Pique was alleged to have said in tunnel altercations after Saturday's draw. Real defender Pepe has been accused of spitting, as recriminations go back and forth from one side to the other.

Guardiola confirmed that there were "heated discussions" in the Bernabeu tunnel but kept his counsel when asked to elaborate.

Madrid look set to recall their most cultured player, Mesut Ozil. The German was left on the bench on Saturday but changed the game when he came on in the second half and should start behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria in attack at the expense of Karim Benzema. (© Independent News Service)

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