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Last season, José Mourinho guided Real Madrid to a title victory over Barcelona by grinding them out over the course of the season. This time, he has no choice but to take them on face-to-face.
Last season, José Mourinho was able to prevail over Pep Guardiola's seemingly invincible Barcelona side not by outplaying them or overwhelming them, but simply by looking to outlast them. Knowing that building a team of eleven players capable of defeating them was a near impossibility, Mourinho utilised a deep squad and limitless attacking options to ensure that Madrid could prevail against any teams looking to stifle their attack or sit deep. The result worked perfectly - Madrid found a way through the packed defences that they came up against where Barcelona failed and suffered off-days, and the title was won.
The blueprint this year will have been similar, particularly with the expectation that a new manager might leave Barcelona disjointed until the adjustment process had finished, but Mourinho already finds himself eight points behind. The season has started to resemble his last days at Stamford Bridge, when his previously-unstoppable Chelsea team came shuddering to a halt in a season in which everything seemed to stop working at once. Real Madrid's squad is too deep and has too much proven quality for a repeat of that scenario, but nonetheless, Sunday's game is still huge.
Not only would defeat spell almost certain defeat for Madrid's title bid - a humiliating prospect in early October - but a draw would fail to counter the growing sense that Barcelona's lead is becoming unassailable, or that it will at least soon progress beyond the stage at which it can be surrendered without a complete collapse. Mourinho needs to conquer his greatest fear - Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, eleven-on-eleven, face-to-face.
It should seem simple for a man who has won the Champions League twice with inferior teams to devise a strategy to overcome Barcelona, but Mourinho has been handicapped by several factors beyond his control. As well as the phenomenal level of the opposition, a transfer policy which has overwhelmingly favoured attack over defence, partly out of the realities of 90% of the games Los Merengues face, and partly out of a traditional bias for the club towards individualists, has left Mourinho in unfamiliar territory. His previous great teams have been built with caution, discipline, and pragmatism. Not for nothing will he have been so reluctant to place his hopes on a solitary game.
Barcelona's reputation has reached such stratospheric levels that even the fact they can be defeated is under dispute. Or at least, they cannot be defeated by another team - only by themselves. Conventional wisdom states that when you play them, your only hope is to turn up, do your best, and hope they have an off day, and if they play half as well as they're capable of playing, hard luck. There's nothing you could've done. The level of truth in that idea is debatable, but it cannot be a gameplan Mourinho can rely upon.
Nor can Madrid opt for a tactic of hell-for-leather attacking. Though their rotating array of attacking talent ensured success over smaller teams last season, it has also gotten them into bad habits, of focusing too heavily on the final third, seeking the decisive pass or move as early as possible, safe in the notion that if it fails and the attack breaks down, another one will be along shortly. Against Barcelona, it is a fortunate side which gets more than a couple of chances all game.
In short, the only way for Mourinho to triumph is to prove that he has finally managed to achieve what he was brought to the club to do - deploy an array of attacking, exciting players in such a way that they could exhibit their flair and potency whilst also maintaining a disciplined approach. In his personal archives, he will find the perfect blueprint in Inter's 3-1 victory over the Blaugrana in the 2010 Champions League. It relied on some luck in the form of refereeing decisions, but it presented the perfect way to overcome Barcelona - not only to stifle or limit them, but to decisively defeat them. A packed midfield, disciplined and deep defending, abandonment of any notion of enjoying extended spells of possession, and playing simple, early balls at any opportunity to try and create an opening. Two and a half years ago, it worked beautifully, and it could do so again this weekend.
When Mourinho arrived at the Bernabeu, he did so as part of a clear project - the idea of a perfect combination of footballing ideals. On the one hand, the romanticism and individualism assosciated with Real Madrid throughout their history, and on the other the win-at-all-costs mentality and discipline of football's most effective strategist. Mourinho's record has been mixed, and how great a triumph last season's title win represented is up for debate, but it cannot be denied that the initial dream has not yet been realised. If Madrid fail on Sunday, they risk suffering another identity crisis where club, manager, and players may begin to look ill-suited to one another. If they can find the right balance and pull off a victory, they will show a glimpse of the possibilities of the future. Either way, there is no middle-ground in this competition anymore. One way or another, La Liga will look very different on Monday morning.
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