El Clasico should be a great opportunity for Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho to salvage something from this season, but in the wider context, Barcelona are a sideshow to their real problems once again.
So, this time it should be different, you'd think -- after all, the league is pretty much over, so Jose Mourinho can at least recoup some prestige and let off some steam by devoting himself to putting Barcelona out of the Copa del Rey. And if they can beat them in the league, that'll be nice for him too, and who knows, maybe it might even just give them the faintest of hopes.
Unfortunately, Real Madrid have one other obstacle to contend with: Manchester United. The Champions League represents an even bigger opportunity for Mourinho and Madrid, the only trophy he hasn't won at the club, and with the possibility to prevail over Barcelona or, more likely, hope they have a shocker and get knocked out by someone else. Much has been made of Real Madrid's quite ridiculous run of fixtures, and the Clasico cannot be considered alone -- it's part of a huge period for Madrid, featuring the Copa del Rey clash, the Clasico in the league, and that Champions League showdown with United.
The fact it's Manchester United makes it an even trickier task. Easily the most flawed of Europe's top teams, United are nonetheless a supremely dangerous opposition. They've been the polar opposite of how Alex Ferguson usually deploys them in Europe -- a cavalier style enforced by their own shortcomings, ensuring plenty of goals in both nets. Oddly, it's given them what is, so far, their best season in a very long time in big games. They have emerged from away games at Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool with victories, and racked up a remarkable points total despite rarely looking at their best.
In addition, the clash against the Premier League's current top team comes with a bucketload of context which Mourinho could do without. Cristiano Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford will probably steal the headlines, uncomfortably considering rumours of a bust-up with Mourinho, but the focus will also be on the manager himself, and his rumoured desire to replace his opponent at the end of the season. Ordinarily, of course, this is all just copy for journalists. Yet in the current climate, with the Spanish press adamant that there are chronic problems in Real Madrid's dressing room, it makes Mourinho's task harder.
For fans of Madrid and spectacle, the first game at least does not have these problems. Coming off the back of a comfortable demolition of Getafe, Real can face Barcelona at home, followed by a very winnable away trip to Granada and then eight days rest before the next fixture against Sevilla. Then it all starts to look like an impossible task: the first leg against Manchester United in between the Copa del Rey fixtures, before a back-to-back clash with Barcelona. First they have to somehow get out of the Camp Nou alive, before facing them at home in the league just two days before the second leg against Manchester United, who will have a slightly easier game against Norwich City in addition to the benefit of an extra day of rest. It's a nightmare for Mourinho: three ties over five games, none of which he can afford to lose.
In recent years, particularly last season when Barcelona were a model of inconsistency, the Clasico has appeared more of an inconvenience than an opportunity for Real Madrid. Their best hope of prevailing over Barcelona always seemed to be by being better at breaking down the other teams in La Liga rather than going toe-to-toe with them, where they would invariably suffer a setback. This season, when it should represent a risk-free opportunity to regain some glory, it's yet another unwanted obstacle.
The conditions have conspired to give Mourinho the worst of both worlds: it gives him a phenomenally tricky task, but the potential rewards will be no greater for the difficulty. The Copa del Rey alone will mean little, the league will still look lost, and even -- considering the fixture list -- the hardest part of the run, victory over Manchester United, would likely just bring a final showdown against Barcelona in Europe a step closer. Madrid are not fighting for glory, but merely to avoid disaster.