La liga Showdown: Real Madrid against Barcelona
Spanish leader Madrid and Barcelona are separated by one point and head into the season’s biggest game in great form: Madrid has won seven straight and is coming off a 4-0 rout of Ajax, Barcelona has won six straight including a record 8-0 thrashing of Almeria.
Cristiano Ronaldo leads the league with 14 goals — one better than counterpart Lionel Messi — and is certain Mourinho is just the man to stop a record four-game losing streak against its biggest rival.
“It’s going to be an emotional meeting and we’re in great form so I think we’re gonna win there,” said Ronaldo, who has never scored in five career meetings against Barcelona, managing a single victory.
If anyone can snap Madrid’s recent record with the two-time defending Spanish champion, it’s certainly Barcelona hate-figure Mourinho. Mourinho’s rise to Champions League successes with FC Porto and Inter Milan began in Barcelona, where he worked as a translator to Bobby Robson before becoming an assistant to Louis van Gaal.
The Portuguese coach has faced Barcelona 10 times overall — mostly in a number of tense Champions League ties with Chelsea and Inter — and most recently, led Inter to victory over the 2009 European champion in the semifinals in May.
The 90,000-plus fans at the Camp Nou are sure to direct much of their venom at Mourinho.
“The fans in the Camp Nou will never forgive me for denying them the opportunity to win the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu,” said Mourinho, who has three wins and four defeats against Barcelona. “I’m a persona non grata as far as Barcelonistas are concerned, so I’ll get a hostile reception.”
Counterpart Pep Guardiola was glad the pair’s European matches were out of the way so the weeks of buildup could reach their climax.
“I’m excited, we’ve been talking about this for some time now,” said Guardiola, who has never lost against Madrid as coach. “It’s going to be an intense, nice game. But arriving in good form to a clasico is no guarantee either.”
Ronaldo is certain that Madrid can prevail almost a year after Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the winner in a 1-0 victory in Barcelona. Madrid hasn’t beaten its rival since May 2008.
“This Madrid is completely different to last season’s and we haven’t lost a single game in the league or the Champions League,” Ronaldo said. “The team has also matured so there’s no better time to visit the Camp Nou.”
Besides David Villa replacing Ibrahimovic, the Catalan club’s squad sees few changes. Winger Angel Di Maria has been a standout arrival for Madrid and playmaker Mesut Oezil has quickly made injured midfielder Kaka a forgotten man.
Mourinho can count on nearly all of his players as striker Gonzalo Higuain and defender Ricardo Carvalho should be available after missing the Ajax match. Only midfielder Sami Khedira is doubtful.
“Each team has its own characteristics and style,” Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa said Thursday. “Each team has its strengths. I don’t know which is worse and which is better.”
Barcelona has no major injury concerns after France defender Eric Abidal returned to play in Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League win at Panathinaikos, when Messi extended his scoring streak to nine games.
The Argentina forward has scored 25 goals in 20 appearances for club and country this season to Ronaldo’s 20 in 22.
“There’s no anti-Messi plan,” Arbeloa said. “You have to get rid of all 18 players, they have such a great team. They’ve got World Cup champions — it’s the team to beat.”
While it’s not the first time the two teams have played on a Monday, the date has drawn ire from both supporters and players. The league said the decision was to avoid security problems, with Catalan elections being held on Sunday.
The rest of the league will be hoping for a draw so that teams can make up some ground on the runaway leaders.
Third-place Villarreal at last-place Zaragoza on Saturday, when Sevilla plays Getafe and Atletico Madrid looks to make up ground on No. 4 Espanyol.
In Sunday’s other 13th-round games, it’s: Sporting Gijon vs. Real Sociedad; Hercules vs. Levante; Racing Santander vs. Deportivo La Coruna; Mallorca vs. Malaga; Athletic Bilbao vs. Osasuna; and Valencia vs. Almeria.
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho has vowed he will do his best to make sure that the Clasico against Barcelona at Camp Nou on Monday lives up to its pre-game hype.