Commentary

Crunch time in El Clasico

Real and Barcelona struggled midweek, but Saturday's derby offers redemption

Updated: April 21, 2012, 12:34 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

The best-laid plans of mice and men, as the Scottish bard Robbie Burns wrote.

This was the week that the complacent among us automatically expected the Clasico, which lies ahead Saturday, would be set up for a repeat in Munich next month.

Bayern Munich and Chelsea? Mere fodder.

This was the week when the superiority of Spanish football, already leading with its chin, would land a killer blow by emphasizing that five out of the eight clubs in the UEFA semifinals are from La Liga for a damn good reason.

But Real Madrid led in Germany and lost. Athletic Club led in Lisbon and lost. Barcelona established a complete TKO in London but lost. Indeed, the only tie that yielded a Spanish winner needed wonderful goals from a Colombian, and there was the small matter of it not being able to provide anything else, given that both Atletico Madrid and Valencia were the combatants.

[+] EnlargePep Guardiola
Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty ImagesPep Guardiola is in a difficult spot. Having lost to Chelsea on Wednesday, his Barca side faces a league-leading Real Madrid in El Clasico but with one eye firmly on a must-win CL semifinal second leg next week.

Now the mice and men might like to be conferring, in a huddle, and reworking the widely held Catalan assumption that because this Clasico -- the sixth time Barcelona and Real Madrid have played this season, and their eleventh meeting in sixteen months -- is at the Camp Nou, it will guarantee life in the La Liga race because Barca will automatically win.

The week that lies behind us suggests no such assumptions can be held without risking accusations of myopia and complacency.

What happened this week, to all the Spanish sides in fairness, was fascinating.

Before thinking about the Clasico, I'd say that the results this week only emphasize how much all of us who love football owe the UEFA Champions League. If we, the mice and the men, skip merrily into our time machine and go back a couple of decades, then the defeats suffered by Real Madrid and Barcelona would, largely, be considered "good results."

Obviously Jose Mourinho's boys, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia registered something more special than the European champions in that they scored four away goals between them. Once upon a time, this was paramount. Victory in enemy territory if you were competing in UEFA's (then) three competitions was a rarity, but scoring an away goal in a draw or defeat was like discovering an oasis in the desert. Not refreshing; vital.

The Champions League (plus the evolution in football philosophy) now dictates that if you are a serious player, you play to win -- home or away. The seriousness that used to derive from Italian thinking about the game -- defend for your life away from home and grab a golden away goal so that home "advantage" could be enforced -- is now applied to gaining and maintaining a lead, as Madrid and Athletic failed to do.

Part of what has been exceedingly attractive about Barcelona over the last few years and now increasingly Madrid and Athletic is the mentality that there is no barrier, psychological or sporting, in the way a team turns up at a hostile stadium, imposes a game plan and performs as if it were playing in front of its own faithful fans.

It was always going to be extremely hostile for Madrid in Munich.

Pregame comments in which the regal Franz Beckenbauer suggested that Real Madrid was a less important, less grand club than Bayern and less "spontaneously creative than Barcelona" were actually quite friendly in terms of how the Germans often speak about Los Blancos.

Bayern president Uli Hoeness once described Florentino Perez's project as a "circus" and this week claimed that "they respect us more than we respect them."

So to lose was very, very painful for Mourinho & Co. To what extent does that tell us something about the Clasico?

To my way of thinking there are, basically, two types of coaches in the world of football -- defensive and attacking -- and when you boil it down and accept that there will be moments when all teams, even defensive ones, can play flowing football, those are the two schools of thought.

Mourinho, for all the record-breaking goals his team will produce this season, is a defensive coach in mentality. Not at all without the capacity to attack, entertain and take risks -- but of a defensive mindset first and foremost.

Clearly he and his team will believe that the narrow margin of the scoreline and the away goal will permit them to defeat Bayern at the Bernabeu and progress back to Munich for the final. That might well be the case, but there is now a slightly greater risk that Madrid is eliminated and the Liga title becomes even more of a Holy Grail project.

Mourinho may throb with desire to make personal history by becoming the first man to lift the Champions League trophy three times with three different teams, but what he must do is convert his team's La Liga superiority into a trophy win. Otherwise he will be dispatched, with his right to depart in high dudgeon claiming genius and misinterpretation by the Spanish media removed.

All this, I reckon, makes him more likely to adopt a "Don't lose at any cost" philosophy Saturday night in Barcelona.

If so, that will be a shame.

In my opinion, two things suggest that Mourinho should order his team to press high up the pitch, attack Barcelona and attempt to do to Pep Guardiola's team what they have routinely done to Madrid at the Bernabeu over the last three and a half years.

For one, at Stamford Bridge we saw the logical conclusion to a handful of games in which Barca's stars have looked competent and creative, but not clinical. For a few weeks now Xavi & Co. have had the opportunity to score freely, because build-up play has been quite good and wears opponents down. But time and time again, it has lacked the killer touch. In London, Barca didn't even have the touch of a minor schoolyard bully, let alone an assassin.

One of the truths we need to hold self-evident is that Barcelona's best defense is its attack -- for two reasons. First, the pressing that makes it tough for unwary opponents to even get out of their own half, and second, the gargantuan number of goals Guardiola's team has scored since he took over.

[+] EnlargeXavi Hernandez
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesXavi is Barcelona's metronome in midfield, but struggled against Chelsea. His ability to influence the game -- and the amount to which Real can pressure him -- could decide Saturday's Clasico.

If Barcelona doesn't put its chances away, the team becomes more human and more prone to suffering from human flaws. Just for the moment Guardiola is waiting for Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Andres Iniesta and Alexis Sanchez (who may not be fit to start anyway) to start scoring at their normal rate. Which just leaves Lionel Messi, who has only managed the derisory total of 63 goals this season.

Dependence? No -- not normally. Dependence when others are not converting their chances -- certainly.

And if Mourinho needed another reason to consider going for the jugular -- rather than drawing Barcelona into an aggressive, debilitating battle designed to ensure that Madrid doesn't lose -- it's the last three Clasicos at the Camp Nou.

One year ago today, Mourinho won his only match against Barcelona as Madrid manager in a Copa del Rey final in which Los Blancos played on the front foot, attacked and stood firm versus a Barca side which, then as now, had hit a small dry spot in its river of goals.

But Madrid went on to lose at home in the Champions League semifinal in a match that still haunts Mourinho and Madridistas. What that controversial home defeat seems to have obscured is that in the second leg, down 3-0 on aggregate, Madrid cut loose. It attacked, pressed Xavi, scored and very nearly added two more. The game finished 1-1 but Madrid was clearly in the ascendancy, even denied a good goal from Gonzalo Higuain.

The Supercopa second leg in August was a barnstorming match, and Barca only won in the last moments because Messi played like a genius that night; the 3-2 victory could easily have gone either way.

Then in January a 2-2 draw in which, again, once Madrid was 4-1 down on aggregate it played with pace and sporting aggression, fighting high up the pitch and scoring twice -- by the end Barcelona was holding on for dear life.

The stats establish, without question, that over the last four years Barcelona has been immensely superior to Real Madrid (and everyone else), but the search for the "right" means to defeat them needs to be ceaseless and intelligent for all serious opponents.

Madrid has started to make the Camp Nou crowd nervous. Barcelona, I think, is even happier playing Clasicos at the Bernabeu where it can soak up pressure, pick Madrid apart and turn the crowd against its own players. On Saturday night the Camp Nou crowd will be loyal and throaty but very, very nervous because, ultimately, defeat or draw and the Blaugrana can say adios to three years of La Liga domination.

Maybe Mourinho will gain his preferred result by opting for attrition, counterattack and pushing the physicality of his team's display to the limits. After all, the only Clasico he's won yet was robustly refereed by Undiano Mallenco, who will also be in charge Saturday.

If he does, then good luck. But it would make for more thrilling watching if the way Madrid has played in extremis on its last three visits could become its basic game plan against a dangerous but slightly hesitant Barcelona side. Up to 400 million people will be watching, and one hopes they get the kind of showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo (53 goals) and Messi (63) they desire.

Me? I'll be watching to see how the other players on the stage perform. Can Xavi overcome his Achilles pain (and a moderate performance in London) to become the pain in the grass that his friend, and rival, Iker Casillas says he always is when it's a Clasico? Can Karim Benzema maintain his recent run of goals, assists and elegant performances when these two teams meet?

Nobody should think me gratuitous or critical when I admit that I believe Mourinho's attitude to his players will be "We don't leave this stadium without a point -- at any cost."

Much is at stake, and those of us who have never managed a billion-dollar brand in front of a world audience, having been humiliated for months by the super-fashionable billion-dollar brand that stands in front of you, will probably never fully understand the temptation to do literally anything to end the humiliation.

But both Barcelona and Real Madrid misfired in midweek.

That will make Guardiola and his divine group of players more determined not only to beat Madrid, but to put on a convincing show. If the midweek hiccup and the cost of defeat make Madrid less daring and less audacious than it has been for much of this season, it will be a pity. Because this Clasico, if Madrid could win it in style, has the potential to lend a sheen of majesty to the Mourinho era, something it has thus far lacked.

As for next week, the Champions League, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, the chorus from both Madridistas and Cules on Saturday night will be "Who?"

For these two combatants, the world begins and ends at the Camp Nou this weekend.

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.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.