MADRID - Spain's two most powerful clubs
Real Madrid and Barcelona lock horns on Saturday for the first
of four titanic confrontations in 18 days that will decide the
success of each side's season.
The arch rivals clash in three competitions: in La Liga on
Saturday, in the final of the King's Cup next
Wednesday and in the Champions League semi-finals at Madrid's
home the Bernabeu on March 27 and at the Nou Camp on May 3.
Saturday's league game at the Bernabeu is, in some ways, the
least significant of the four as leaders Barca have an
eight-point advantage over Real with seven matches left. Pep
Guardiola's side could lose and still coast to a third
consecutive league title.
However, Saturday's result will also be hugely significant
in psychological terms for fans and players for the following
Since Guardiola took the helm in 2008, Barca have proven
invincible in the "clasicos", chalking up five consecutive
The last of those was a crushing 5-0 rout at the Nou Camp in
November, which ended Jose Mourinho's unbeaten start as Real
coach. Breaking that dismal run is surely crucial for the
nine-time European champions.
Guardiola has already warned against complacency, urging his
players to go for the win on Saturday to effectively wrap-up the
"It's a unique opportunity to strike a decisive blow," he
said after last weekend's win over Almeria.
Real appeared to view things slightly differently after
beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 to make the last four of the
Champions League on Wednesday.
"What happens in one game has no significance over what will
happen in the next," Mourinho told reporters.
"There are people who think that whoever wins the first
match will be in a better position for the second. My theory is
very simple. You play the first and when it is finished you
start thinking about the second."
Real's top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, who has yet to find the
net against Barca, added: "He who laughs last, laughs loudest,
and I hope it will be Madrid."
Mourinho's squad seems to be in better shape for Saturday
with strikers Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain and playmaker
Kaka all coming back from injury in time for the season run in.
The Portuguese has successfully rotated his squad over the
last week, trying out different tactical variations in games,
and has a number of options available to him.
The mauling his side received at the Nou Camp five months
ago illustrated the danger of allowing Barca to dominate
possession, so he could move away from his standard 4-2-3-1 line
up to pack the midfield with a third 'holding' player this time.
Barca's smaller squad, on the other hand, has been hit by
the long-term loss of defender Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal, to
injury and to liver surgery respectively.
Gerard Pique and the little-used Gabriel Milito are his only
recognised centre-backs though midfielder Sergio Busquets and
Javier Mascherano have stepped in to cover of late, but they
have not looked as secure in defence as they were earlier in the
Argentina's Mascherano is suspended for Saturday.
Striker Bojan Krkic picked up a knee injury last weekend
which restricts Guardiola's choices up front where leader of the
line David Villa has not scored in nine outings.
Fortunately for Guardiola, World Player of the Year Lionel
Messi is in scintillating form.
He is the league's top scorer with 29 goals, one ahead of
Ronaldo, and in scoring against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday took
his tally for the season in all competitions to 48, setting a
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