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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Updated: December 7, 1:59 PM ET
Can Barcelona stop rampant Real?

By Graham Hunter
Special to ESPN.com

Josep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho
Saturday will mark the eighth Pep Guardiola-Jose Mourinho Clasico, but this time it's the Special One who has the upper hand heading into the world's biggest club match.

If Jose Mourinho has had a more toxic, infuriating and damaging series of results in his entire career than those against Barcelona since managing Real Madrid, I can't recall them.

Since the Portuguese took over at the Santiago Bernabeu, there have been seven Clasicos -- which is the noun Spain uses to describe the tribal football war between Madrid and FC Barcelona. They have been a thorn in Mourinho's side not merely because his team, more often than not, has been bettered. What has exacerbated his annoyance is how much he wanted the job that belongs to Pep Guardiola and, quite naturally, how much he wanted to show the Catalan club what it missed by not signing him to replace Frank Rijkaard in 2008.

Last season, it was occasionally hard to tell whether Mourinho, for all his vast skill and experience, was a help or a hindrance to his squad. What was once Machiavellian scheming, and often successful during his other appointments, intermittently seemed to become howling at the moon. When his team went toe-to-toe with Barca, attacking the Catalans, it resulted in a brutal 5-0 thrashing. And when he chose to man-mark, cede possession and try to counterattack at the Santiago Bernabeu, even Madrid's greatest icon, Alfredo Di Stefano, called them a team "without personality" and "like a mouse to Barcelona's lion."

But things have patently changed. Mourinho is, as sportsmen and -women put it, "in the zone." For weeks his decisions and his leadership have been like catnip for the Real Madrid players. Team rotation, playing style, fitness, mood and democracy within the squad-coach relationship: the Special One is special again. His presence in the Spanish media has been, for some months now, low-profile, noncontroversial and the antithesis of how he chose to act last season. That, added to FC Barcelona's deep uncertainty away from the fortress Camp Nou, has led not only to Madrid hitting the top of La Liga but also unquestionably deserving the status of the in-form team coming into Saturday's eighth Mourinho-Guardiola Clasico.

Will that be sufficient to defeat the reigning Spain and European champions and open a definitive lead at the top of the Primera Division? Perhaps these points will help guide us to that answer.

1. Self-discipline will be key

During the seven previous La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League and Supercup matches since Mourinho and Guardiola faced off, there have been 21 goals, 52 bookings and nine red cards. Barca have won three, Madrid one and there have been three draws. The balance of trophies in that fevered series has been three to Barca and one to Mourinho's club.

We are now just over a year after that utterly remarkable 5-0 destruction of Real Madrid by a wonderful Lionel Messi and Xavi-inspired "dream team," since which the pattern has been noticeably different. The results since that mauling tell a tale -- three score draws, a 1-0 cup final victory for Madrid, a 2-0 away win for Barca (once Pepe was sent off and Messi was unshackled), plus a 3-2 last-minute Supercup win for Barcelona at Camp Nou. Things are tight.

Mourinho's perpetual moaning about having to play Barca with only 10 men, which dates back to when he coached Chelsea and Inter Milan, has no foundation. At all. It's a tactic, nothing else, from a man who has always admitted that for him the match "starts during the buildup," not when the whistle blows. Sadly, last season some of his Real Madrid players began to be sucked down by self-delusion and a victim mentality, which made them less competitive. Even though the red card for Angel Di Maria in the cup final didn't eventually cost Madrid a dramatic victory, the teams are now so evenly balanced that whichever of the two maintains better self-discipline and retains 11 men on the pitch will have an exponentially improved chance of taking what they want from this Clasico.

Lionel Messi
Once again, Pepe will be deployed to try to stop Lionel Messi.

2. Messi, Pepe and Marcelo should be the pivotal players

Given that the pitch will be replete with a large percentage of the world's absolutely greatest footballers, it would be naive to pretend that I know, specifically, who will win or lose the match for either team. There are too many jack-in-the-box geniuses playing to do that. But it is worth highlighting three players -- all of whom should start -- who have been absolutely key to the most important results in the seven-game series until now.

It was Messi who scored that late Supercup winner this season, and it's notable that he's the leading player in the seven-game series -- six goals and four assists. Recently, only the greatest player in the world has separated the sides. His form has been a little odd lately -- still producing goals at an abnormal rate, but also missing chances that would normally be meat and drink and, occasionally, choosing the more selfish option instead of automatically feeding a better-placed teammate. The white shirt of Madrid has tended to be a red flag to him since he made his Clasico debut in that brilliant 3-0 win at the Bernabeu, which will forever be remembered as "Ronaldinho's game." If Mourinho's team can legally patrol Messi more effectively than it has in the past, it will be a massive step toward a victory that could, even now, push the title out of Barca's grasp.

For parts of last season, Pepe was Messi's tormentor. It was a Road Runner-Wile E. Coyote story as far as their relative levels of success went, but Pepe was an important player in the battle to stop Messi. In his midfield destroyer role, he was effective -- albeit straining the letter of the law. The extent to which he posed questions for Messi was demonstrated in that the Argentine was driven deeper and deeper to gain possession with some space to work during the cup final defeat, and it was only after Pepe was sent off that Messi was unleashed and scored twice in the Champions League semifinal first leg. And it was a tiny slip by Pepe that allowed Messi to make it 2-1 for Barcelona at the Camp Nou Supercup first leg in August. Playing in midfield, Pepe hit the bar with a header, and has produced two assists in the seven-match series. Not an outright success for Mourinho thus far, but still a threat to Messi.

Ronaldo, Andres Iniesta
The Supercup was a physical encounter that Barcelona won over two legs back in August.

Then there is Marcelo -- adored by Madridistas, causing defensive organizers everywhere nightmares with his concept of positional sense. He carried out Mourinho's battle instructions to the very limit during the previous seven games, but his impish forward runs and his warrior spirit often obscured his flaws. Marcelo's work with Di Maria helped produce the winning goal in the cup final, and his thumping finish at Camp Nou in the Champions League semifinal second leg was emblematic of what he does well. But just look at his defensive work on both of Messi's goals in the first leg and his positional sense, plus his lazy attitude to tracking back, when Pedro put the tie out of reach at Camp Nou, 3-0 on aggregate. Shoddy from Marcelo. Poorly placed, slow to react, self-indulgent. Can he address those flaws and only produce the flamboyant, daring work down the left wing that renders him so valuable to Madrid?

3. Barca have failed to hit their high notes this season

The core concept of Barcelona's excellence under Guardiola is much more prosaic than many people imagine. We, on the outside, venerate excellence but we tend to see it in individual portions. "Xavi is this good," "Messi is perhaps the best ever," "Andres Iniesta should be the Ballon d'Or winner" -- yada, yada, yada. Guardiola put a massive premium on two things when he came to power. First, that the team should be more important than any individual. Second, that his players would run and run and run -- in training and in matches. He wanted his players to be fitter, hungrier, sharper than anyone else on the planet and thereby to unleash the footballing excellence they possess.

Irrespective of their astonishing record at Camp Nou this season -- 47-2 in terms of goals for and goals conceded -- I don't think Barca have hit their top notes in any game since the Spanish Supercup second leg at home in August. They press less voraciously, they regularly give the ball away upward of 25 times more per game than when they were at their absolute peak in 2009, and they appear incapable of passing the ball at the ice-hockey speeds that can make them irresistible to watch. Unless Guardiola has magically found a way to re-establish all these damaged elements for this match -- and Lord knows what a powerful motivational tool a bitter rivalry can be -- Madrid deserves to start as favorite.

4. Don't underestimate Valdes' importance in goal

Although it would be a harsh judge who attached blame to Jose Pinto, it remains the case that the only Clasico that Madrid has won since Mourinho took over was the Copa del Rey final, in which Guardiola loyally stuck with the backup goalkeeper who took Barca that far. Thus the stats, even if you consider them lies and damned lies, state that the only time Madrid beat Barcelona in the past seven meetings is when Victor Valdes was absent.

Victor Valdes
Barcelona's keeper has been its most consistent player from 2005-11.

I bring this up only as context for something that should be vital Saturday. Such has been the excellence -- indeed, dominance -- of Guardiola's team since May 2008 (the last time Madrid won a La Liga Clasico), that I think many neutrals forget the number of times when a Real Madrid counterattack has been snuffed out one-on-one by Valdes. I'd venture to say that the Catalan keeper is Barca's single most consistent player in the period from 2005-11, and it has often been the case that his remarkable ability to stay utterly focused while his team prevents him from having much work to do and then to react, perfectly, on the one or two vital occasions when he's truly needed is underestimated -- at least by everyone aside from his teammates and coaches. He even deserves an "assist" credit for the sublime pass he played to Dani Alves, practically on his own goal line, to set Barca en route to their first goal in the Champions League semifinal Clasico second leg at Camp Nou.

Is Valdes on his best form? Can he turn the tide by excelling when, as is likely, he's the busier of the two keepers for a change? The answer to those questions will go a long way toward determining superiority at the Bernabeu.

5. Prepare to be entertained

At the end of it all, I'd counsel against listening to those who tell you that some of the Clasicos last season were a let-down because of the patent nastiness that tainted them. Every match of the seven-game series thus far has been completely absorbing for its own reasons, and none of them has been short of some moments of complete footballing brilliance. I'd also be wary of anyone predicting that this might be the greatest-ever Clasico, the best in 10 years, etc. Accept the beast for its nature: There will be nerves, there will be vindictiveness and score-settling, there will be flare-ups and there will be tension. Only the hypocrites fail to accept that, without that kind of bad feeling, this wouldn't be a match to attract the eyes of the world. So just sit back, open a beer or a bottle of wine and prepare for another enthralling installment of this long-running serial.

Every episode is a cliffhanger.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.