Seconds out for rounds 15 and 16 of Mourinho Clasico bout

Posted by Rob Train

If the Clasico series in the Jose Mourinho era was a boxing match, it would have been stopped after the first round. November 2010: Real Madrid traveled to Camp Nou in decent form and high spirits. The hitherto unbeaten league leader led Barcelona by a point and had just spanked a decent Athletic side 5-1. There was a bullish mood in the Real camp that with its new coach masterminding a new dawn the visiting side would record a first win in hostile territory since May 2008. By the hour mark such illusions had been cruelly shattered and Mourinho, slumped in the dugout despite raucous invitations from the home side to venture into his technical area, sat ashen-faced as he contemplated the biggest defeat of his managerial career.

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Since that inauspicious beginning to the Portuguese's reign at Real, a staggering 13 further Clasicos have been contested, in four different competitions. The balance of bragging rights favors the Catalan outfit: six wins to Real's three, and five draws.

Rounds 15 and 16 begin on Wednesday night at the Bernabeu. It is not quite make-or-break time for Mourinho at Real Madrid - the likelihood is that the breaking will come at the end of the season and concern his contract with the club - but it is game one of a decisive run that will shape the second half of the season and quite possibly Mourinho's checkered legacy. The real crunch comes in a couple of weeks' time, when Manchester United looms large in Real's pursuit of a 10th European title, and an unprecedented fourth with different clubs for Mourinho. Special One? Few will be able to argue otherwise if he pulls that off as his parting gift to Florentino Perez.

In the meantime, his bete azulgrana awaits. Since that humbling at Camp Nou, Mourinho's tactics to counter Barcelona's incessant tiki-taka have evolved. First there was anti-football, a ruse encapsulated in the snarling form of Pepe as a midfield destroyer. Then came the toe-to-toe approach, as Mourinho swamped his midfield to stifle the opponent at source. Now Mourinho has developed something close to parity; harnessing Real's natural counter-attacking style while aiming to neutralize Barcelona's dominance of possession.

The last match between the two combatants ended in a 2-2 Liga draw in which two players scored two goals each. On current form, there is little to suggest Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi will not prove decisive in this tie. The Portuguese knocked three past Getafe in 10 minutes early on Sunday afternoon. Not to be outdone, yet again, the Argentinean clipped four in against Osasuna the same evening.

Messi's Liga tally now stands at 201; only seven players in the history of the Spanish domestic competition stand in the way of the tipex being wielded again in the Argentinean's assault on the record books.

Ronaldo has scored ten in seven games in January and shows little sign of having sated his own legend at the capital club just yet. "Ronaldo inspires the rest of the team," noted Sergio Ramos after Getafe was swept aside.

But Real will need the Portuguese matador to be in full swing against Barcelona on Wednesday. Mourinho cannot call on Ramos or Pepe to stem the Barca tide in the first leg, and is also missing Iker Casillas, Fabio Coentrao and Angel di Maria. The loss of these players would be a sword to the neck of most sides, but Real has a squad like few in the world. "Real Madrid is Real Madrid, in spite of whatever player it is missing," noted stand-in Barcelona coach Jordi Roura ahead of the game. "Missing such important players will make them more dangerous."

The loss of Casillas is perhaps the most significant, and Real moved swiftly to cover the loss of its captain by bringing Diego Lopez back in to the fold seven years after he left for Villarreal. Whether he will be thrown into the fray in this match remains to be seen, but clean sheets in two Champions League group matches against United and two more against Barcelona (in the first leg of a King's Cup tie in 2008 - also saving a Messi spot-kick in the return leg - and for Villarreal in early 2012) are not a bad curriculum.

Despite the lack of its first choice center-backs for the game, back-ups Ricardo Carvalho, Raul Albiol and Raphael Varane have proved themselves equal to the task with a string of clean sheets in 2013. Since the 4-3 win over Real Sociedad, only Valencia, in the cup, has managed to score against Real. Barcelona on the other hand hasn't kept two consecutive clean sheets in the league all season. "Valdes or Pinto?" mused Roura in a pre-game press conference. "I prefer not to say. In any case, the goalkeeper that each team fields will be there because he is the best option for the team."

Aitor Karanka would not reveal who would keep goal for Real but it will be a major gamble by Mourinho to entrust Antonio Adan with keeping Barcelona at bay. The visitor, meanwhile, seems set to keep to its policy of playing Jose Manuel Pinto in the cup, as reported on Spanish news channel 24h on Tuesday. Pinto and Lopez are grizzled veterans but both are capable still of the sublime

Karim Benzema will be eager to test Pinto's mettle after a run of underwhelming performances out of key with his prolific early season form. And the France striker is eyeing victory for the home side: "Barcelona is not favorite," the curiously coiffed forward said. "They are a great team but we are playing well and we are ready for this game. We know it will be a very tough match but hopefully we will win it. Cup ties are always different games. This time we're playing at home first and we will try to play well. But the truth is when we play in Barcelona we play a bit better, we don't lose and I don't know why that is. We have been getting better every time we play them."

It is a stage for Ronaldo to wreak a little revenge on Messi, UEFA and the world for another Ballon d'Or snub. And Roura accepted that the Portuguese will be fired up for another Clasico. "Cristiano Ronaldo is one of those players that everybody knows what he does, and how he does it, but he always scores goals. It's difficult to stop him. We know his game, but with the great players there is no magic wand to stop them."

In terms of the two-legged nature of the tie, Real has but one problem surrounding Ronaldo: a yellow card will rule him out of the return leg at Camp Nou.

As Apollo Creed said to Rocky Balboa: "Ding, ding."

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