COS columnist Tom Victor looks forward to what should be an explosive Nou Camp encounter.
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Life in Madrid has been fairly easy for José Mourinho so far.
His Real side sit atop the Primera Division table after accumulating 32 points from 12 games, and have already secured top spot in their Champions League group with a game to spare.
Victory over Murcia in the Copa del Rey means after 17 games they are yet to lose, and their record of 49 goals scored and nine conceded in all competitions is frankly scary.
What’s more, new signings Mesut Özil and Angel di Maria have slotted seamlessly into a side which is not only winning, but winning with style.
Tonight Mourinho faces his biggest test as Real head to Camp Nou for the first Clásico of the 2010/11 season, and the events of the last week have left him in a win-win situation.
It goes without saying that victory over Los Merengues’ fiercest rivals would instantly grant hero status to a man who has won everything there is to win in the game.
But any defeat – especially if it occurs in contentious circumstances – would allow the former Internazionale boss the chance to recycle his old ‘everyone’s against us’ schtick, particularly given the fallout from last week’s controversy in Amsterdam.
The allegedly ‘deliberate’ red cards picked up by Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos never needed to affect El Clásico, unless Mourinho wanted them to. Perhaps reliant on a typically ham-fisted response from UEFA, at the very least the Portuguese will now use the charges of improper conduct as a motivational tool for his troops before they take on Pep Guardiola’s charges.
And the victim mentality will only be reinforced by today’s news that the Real team coach was pelted with rocks outside the hotel where they are staying ahead of the game.
Among Chelsea fans there remains a school of thought which says Avram Grant’s run to the 2008 Champions League final was the product of Mourinho’s squad performing for their mistreated former boss, and it is not only in the dugout where Grant is considered a poor man’s version of his predecessor at Stamford Bridge.
If Grant’s notorious ‘Braveheart’ speech at Portsmouth constituted a rare moment of heart-in-the-right-place inspiration, Mourinho has consistently got the best out of his squads by never failing to emphasise how much the rest of the world was praying for them to lose.
It worked with Porto and Inter when they won the Champions League, and he even got the mentality across while in charge of a Chelsea side consistently drawing in new fans as the glory days returned to west London.
Now he faces a task which is simultaneously his easiest and his most challenging.
The ease comes from the fact that under the stewardship of Guardiola (and Frank Rijkaard before him) Barcelona have quickly become many fans’ second team. Their attractive playing style and promotion of homegrown talent makes it difficult for many to justify opposing them, thus automatically relegating free-spending Real to the status of potential party-poopers.
But on the other hand, the fans will be expecting entertainment. Winning alone isn’t enough at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, something Fabio Capello and Vicente del Bosque discovered the hard way, and counteracting the Barça threat in a sleep-inducing one-nil triumph may fail to placate some fans schooled on free-flowing football from the di Stefanos, Butragueños and Zidanes of this world.
What Los Merengues’ fans will hope for is a nullification of the threat of Messi and Villa coupled with Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates running riot at the other end of the field.
To say it is a tough ask is an understatement, but if anyone is capable of making it happen then it is Mourinho.
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