Had enough of el Clasico yet? No? Good, because we've got two more for you yet. Real Madrid host FC Barcelona in the first leg of the 2011 UEFA Champions League semi-finals at the Santiago Bernabeu, with each team bidding for a place in the final at Wembley. By the time this game rolls around, we'll have already seen the first leg of the other semi-final and thus have a pretty good idea which of Manchester United and Schalke 04 we should expect to meet the winner of this matchup, but for now the two Spanish giants have more pressing matters to concern themselves with - namely, each other.
We've already had two Clasicos in the past nine days. The first, in the league, saw ten-man Rael Madrid fight back to earn a 1-1 draw at home thanks to a late penalty, and four days Jose Mourinho's men triumphed in extra time thanks to a Cristiano Ronaldo header, earning themselves the Copa Del Rey (which Sergio Ramos promptly dropped under a moving bus). Momentum, then, is firmly with the hosts. That 5-0 Barcelona victory in November has been all but forgotten.
It probably shouldn't be, though. At their best, Barcelona are capable of playing a style of football that even the massed ranks of Madrid are powerless to stop. The trick, then, is to make Pep Guardiola's side forget what they're capable of, and Mourinho has done just that over the past two games, frustrating and harassing the Catalans throughout the first two matches, to the point where Madrid actually managed to dominate long spells of the second game.
Guardiola cannot allow Real Madrid to get into his team's collective heads. Barcelona's game is to keep the ball more or less forever, neutralising their opposition's attacks before they can begin, shifting the play around until gaps in the armour show. Then they hit them, hard and fast. It's a style no other team can pull off, but if they're disrupted in the midfield they are suddenly incredibly vulnerable to the quick counter-attack (as Ronaldo et. al showed in the Copa Del Rey final). Recently, Mourinho has been using centre half Pepe to do just that, pushing him into the midfield to act as a destroyer. It's not a coincidence that Barcelona's midfield has been off its game when Pepe's been wandering around causing trouble.
So far, Real Madrid have the upper hand. But now there's more to play for. The Champions League final awaits. Will that be enough to spur Barcelona to new heights, or will the Mourinho factor once again see them stumbling out of Europe at the semi-final stage?
Injuries and Suspensions
Bad news for Real Madrid as centre back Ricardo Carvalho is forced to miss the match after drawing a yellow card at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur. The ex-Chelsea man has been a key cog in Real Madrid's defence this year, and his absence could see Pepe reinstated in the defence, although it's more likely that Sergio Ramos will be moved to centre back while Alvaro Arbeloa mans right-back. Midfielder Sami Khedira is also a doubt for los Blancos.
Barcelona have more significant concerns, although Andres Iniesta has managed to avoid a one-game suspension for provoking a yellow card after an appeal to UEFA. Captain Carles Puyol is still a doubt, and left back is something approximating a total mess after injuries to Maxwell, Adriano and Gabriel Milito have left Pep Guardiola sweating over their availability (Adriano and Milito are definitely out, while Maxwell could return in time for the match). The Barcelona defence will be looking fairly makeshift at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Pepe vs. Xavi Hernandez. Lionel Messi gets the nod as best player in the world, but it's the midfield that give Barcelona their identity, and without them their superstar forwards have to rely on individual moments of magic to propel their sides to the win.
Pepe is Jose Mourinho's trump card. He doesn't play pretty football, but he does prevent Barcelona from setting up with his own special brand of running around like a deranged angry man style of play. If Barcelona can avoid Pepe in a physical battle (and don't forget they'll have to deal with Real's other midfielders at the same time, they'll be able to pick their opponents apart. If not, watch for Madrid to hit and hit hard on the transition.
David Villa finally broke his scoreless streak last weekend, netting the opener in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Osasuna. Lionel Messi added the second late on, but it couldn't disguise the relative weakness in the Catalans' play. It was far too close a win for the champions-elect.
Real Madrid were impressive against Valencia at the Mestalla last weekend, going up 6-1 despite fielding a mostly reserve team. Eventually they eased off, allowing the hosts to score two late goals to give the scoreline a veneer of respectability, but the six-goal haul was Madrid laying down a real marker to everyone's been questioning them so far this year.
7:45 PM GMT (2:45 PM EST), Wednesday April 27th.
I don't see Real Madrid as being able to keep Barcelona off the scoresheet for two games in a row, and they'll be missing Ricardo Carvalho this time around. That said, I also don't see Barcelona able to shut out Madrid, either, so a score draw sounds about right. Let's go with a 1-1 draw, with Barcelona carrying a (narrow) advantage back to Camp Nou in the second leg.