Handbags at dawn

These two teams, neither of whom has ever been relegated from La Liga, first met in 1929. Real Madrid holds the upper hand in head to heads or “El Clasico” as it’s called in Spain. The rivalry is more intense than any local derby, it’s Castile versus Catalonia. Real Madrid have the lion’s share of honours but, in recent years, it’s been tipping in Barcelona’s favour. Nonetheless, Real Madrid is the more successful club both financially and in terms of success on the pitch. They were voted the most successful team of the 20th century. A review of their players past and present reads like a “Who’s who in football”. Scant consolation, but with 90,000 seats, the Nou camp is bigger than the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium which only seats 80,354.

To arrest that slide, at the start of this season Real bought in the “Special One” aka Jose Mario dos Santos Felix Mourinho, the (first) FIFA Ballon d’Or Best Coach in 2010. A man who won the first treble in Italian football with Inter: Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. It’s fair to say he has an enviable record. Will he be the first manager to win three Champion’s League titles with three different clubs?

Josep “Pep” Guardiola i Sala is a former Barcelona born and bred player who took over as coach in the 2008/9 season when they won La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champion’s League . He was the youngest ever manager to land a Champion’s League title and he added to his trophy haul with Supercopa Espana, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Not bad for the new boy on the block; six major trophies in one calendar year.

Years of intense rivalry and simmering animosity, sparked no doubt by Barca’s 5-0 drubbing of Real at the Nou camp in November 2010, their 5th straight El Clasico win, have boiled over in the past few weeks as the teams have played one another four times. Real managed a draw at the Bernabeu and then won the Copa del Rey at the Mestailla stadium, Valencia’s home ground. But this was the big one, the Champion’s League semi-final, a competition that Real have won an amazing nine times.

The respective managers were generating sparks off the pitch in the run up to last week’s first leg. It was a journalist’s delight as the two traded insults and those back pages wrote themselves. Mourinho accused the referees of kowtowing to Barca but was left with egg on his face as FIFA awarded the first leg to a Portuguese referee. Sadly, there weren’t as many fireworks on the pitch. Mourinho’s spoiling tactics,  Barca’s histrionics and an overly long grass pitch got in the way of the beautiful game. Reduced to 10-men once again against Barca, Real were unable to prevent Messi slotting home two goals, the second a real gem, in the second half.

This left Real with an unenviable uphill struggle this evening in the Nou Camp where the onus would be on them to attack providing they could wrest control of the ball from Barca. Mourinho would be watching the game from his hotel room, banished from the touchline, no doubt burning the mobile phone airwaves to his Basque assistant Aitor Karanka who, in the pre-match press conference, carried on where Mourinho had left off.

This evening the scene was set after a  heavy pre-match thunderstorm soaked the pitch, possibly putting a damper on that enmity. Iniesta and Abidal were back for Barca, while Pedro and Sergio Ramos were suspended for Real. Real started brightly, eager to get on the scoresheet. But Victor Valdes, by comparison with Iker Casillas, was rarely troubled. Soon the hosts were running rings around Real and it was only a matter of time before they scored. Actually, Real scored first in the second half but Gonzalo Higuain’s goal was disallowed by the Belgian referee as a consequence of Ronaldo’s supposed foul on Mascherano. It was the referee’s only poor call of the game and no doubt the Special One will have something to say about it. A sublime pass from Iniesta allowed Pedro to score in 54th minute, while Moreno equalised 10 minutes later. The goals, rather than sparking the game into life, encouraged the teams to cancel out one another’s efforts. There was no repeat of the ugly scenes of the first leg and little evidence of gamesmanship. Barca go through 3-1 on aggregate to the Champion’s League Final, their third in six years, which will be held at Wembley, the same day as La Laurentine Andrei Kivilev.

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