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El Clasico preview: Jose back to haunt Barca

The biggest game in club football is on a Monday this time around. It promises to be manic, writes Paul Ring.

PASSING RECENTLY THROUGH that great steel edifice that is the Camp Nou, my eye was drawn to the scratches on the wall coming down the stairs from the third level.

Every away club was accounted for. Symbolic markings of those who came in faint hope and more likely than not left chastened. One stood out, scrawled small and deep: “Figo”.

Emboldened in concrete it was a reminder of Barca’s incessant itch, but there is another Portuguese looming into view. One who rivals even Figo for attracting Catalan ire.

Barcelona’s bogey man is back. Jose Mourinho, the man who shunted their European dreams into a straitjacket just last April returns tomorrow leading Real Madrid from atop of La Liga. It is the mark of the man that, in a season where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been sublimely ridiculous, his touchline joust with Pep Guardiola will garner as many flashbulbs as those two.

Both managers have proven that they can negate the individual. Seldom has Messi in particular looked so ineffective than against Inter in last season’s Champions League semi-final.

He was on the Inter leash, left to prowl and bark but ultimately left muzzled. Ronaldo too looked ordinary as Barca took Real apart in the Bernebeu. Shadowed by former Manchester United teammate Gerard Pique he resorted to shots from outlandish range and angles.

It would, of course be in keeping with those two if they were to settle the game with a glimpse of genius but consider that, in five matches against Barcelona, Ronaldo has failed to score (and some may argue, failed to make any impression) while Messi has failed to fire in seven games against Mourinho coached opposition.

More than ever then the stars must look to the conductors. Monday night may well be a tale of Xabi and Xavi. The Spanish pass-masters are at the fulcrum of everything their side do and will be in direct combat.

Alonso probes from deep, raking the occasional long diagonal only when he is sure of success. He has that little ounce of pragmatism that enables him to mix the silk with steel.  His opponent may well be the finest midfielder of his generation.

What separates Xavi from the rest is the ease in which he operates in front of the opposition back-four. Despite the shadowing he slithers away  before picking the perfect pass.

It would be churlish not to mention the others: Inestia, Higuain, Villa and Di Maria. This flick is pure box-office. But it is the producers on the sideline, the directors in the middle and the stars at the forefront that will dictate the ending.

What will that be? The smart money is on a draw.  But don’t be surprised if it’s Jose running down the touchline.

He usually leaves his mark.

About the author:

Paul Ring

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