It is the game the world is waiting to see, according to José Mourinho, and he may well be right.
But at least some of the interest generated by tomorrow night’s clash at the Bernabeu is not in the game so much as whether Mourinho can rescue himself from a potential wreck.
Real Madrid won well on Saturday, 4-1 against Sevilla. Cristiano Ronaldo hit another hat-trick and equally important their new goalkeeper Diego Lopez gave a reassuring display against his old club.
Sevilla have provided useful target practice before — 18 goals in three recent games — but that run came to an abrupt halt last September when Madrid lost 1-0, at which point Mourinho declared that he “no longer had a team”.
With normal service resumed, the Spanish ought to be facing Manchester United with confidence.
Yet the league tables do not lie. While United are 12 points clear of Manchester City at the top, Real are four points adrift of their local rivals Atletico — and a further 12 points behind Barcelona. All the pressure is on Mourinho and his men.
From the Madrid viewpoint, two things will decide this match, the tie and quite probably the season: their mental attitude and their stamina.
In their cup game against Barcelona a fortnight ago, like this match a first leg played at home, they started with a bang and pressed the opposition hard. With a makeshift defence, both full-backs playing out of position and stand-in centre backs, they defended well, especially as it was the first match for their new keeper.
But as in previous encounters with Barcelona, they found it impossible to sustain the pace and the match turned against them. 1-1 was a fair result, but Barca created more chances and go into the second leg with the away-goal advantage.
Ronaldo’s performance is inevitably the key issue, and against Barcelona, it didn’t happen.
He’d also put the ball in his own net in the 1-0 humiliation at Granada. Against Sevilla he was back to his unstoppable best, although aided by a catastrophic error from Sevilla centre-back Federico Fazio 30 seconds after the restart.
There have been times when a section of the Bernabeu public have jeered him. But this was a historic occasion as he overtook two of the club’s all-time greats. He now has scored more goals than Francisco Gento and more hat-tricks than Ferenc Puskas, and there was a huge ovation when he was taken off for a rest just after the hour.
Were it not for Lionel Messi rewriting the record books — the Argentinian has now scored in 13 consecutive league games — Ronaldo would be receiving more of the recognition he deserves. Madrid’s problem is their other players aren’t firing as they should do.
Eight league goals for Gonzalo Higuain and six for Karim Benzema are a poor return. The way Mourinho plays 4-2-3-1, that isn’t wholly a surprise, but goals aren’t flowing from midfield either. Mexut Ozil has five; Xabi Alonso has yet to score in 32 appearances.
“Make one mistake and we’re out,” said Sergio Ramos yesterday, declaring himself fully behind the manager staying at the club beyond this season, which is a slight change of tune from the recent tales of discontent.
Mistakes there have been. Madrid have developed a strange vulnerability at set pieces this season, partly because of having to chop and change in defence.
It looks as if they will be a full strength for this game, the only doubt being whether Pepe will be fit to partner Ramos in the middle. Their best alternative, if he’s fit, is the 19-year-old French centre-back Raphael Varane, who has impressed almost every time he has played and was perhaps the best man on the pitch against Barcelona, showing both speed and timing with his interceptions, clearing off the line from Xavi, and finally heading home the equaliser seven minutes from the end.
That goal gave Mourinho and his team at least a glimpse of salvaging something from the wreck, a sense that their season could yet turn. The Holy Grail for Real is the Decima — the 10th title that would win them the right to keep a second European Cup. For Mourinho, the dream is to win three titles with three different clubs. But for the moment he may be satisfied just to defy his critics.
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