It would be an understatement to use the word ‘mouthwatering’ when we cast a glance at the upcoming week’s football calendar. Two consecutive El Clasicos spread across a span of five days. The first of which will be this season’s Copa Del Rey semi-final second-leg at the Camp Nou with both teams deadlocked at one goal apiece. The week’s sequel arrives in the La Liga at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night, which promises to be yet another occasion for both these classic sides to show why they are among the two best teams in world football at the moment. It promises to be nothing short of a treat to the eye for a true enthusiast of the ‘beautiful game’.
But what remains oblivious to most of these eyes that are lost in the teams’ footballing prowess on the pitch alone is the fact that there is a lot that has circumstantially taken place at both clubs recently which has left them very much handicapped going into two of their biggest fixtures of the season.
At Barcelona, leaving out a few recent fixtures, even though the team has flourished by all means on the pitch, they have lately fallen short in the dugout. This owing to the fact that their coach Tito Vilanova, who took up the top job only this season, has been undergoing treatment and then subsequent recovery in New York from Parotid gland cancer that was diagnosed way back in 2011.
On the other hand at the Santiago Bernabeu, the manager is very much present in the form of the much revered Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese great has proven to be a success at every club he has managed, but after a fruitful last season, the los blancos have not been able to replicate the kind of form that thwarted the Catalans last time out in the league. At this club the situation is simple to understand, the coach is a modern legend, but his squad has been lacking in recent times, proving to be a perfect foil to the chapter panning out in terms of players and coach in Catalunya.
|How Vilanova's absence has eventually proven detrimental|
In Barcelona’s case, it is a whole team and one which is considered if not the best, then one of the best teams in the world easily for the past 4 years now, has admitted to be affected by their manager’s absence due to cancer. The squad though has not shown any sort of change in form, having won 22 out of their 25 games in the league this season. They have lost only one game all season and have shown absolute ruthlessness in front of goal, plundering a massive 82 goals already.
But for how long could Vilanova’s absence not be a cause for concern? Off late, the cracks have started to show in the Catalan ranks with a gaping hole exposed at the San Siro on Wednesday night. No doubt, the Messi-led attack force is the most dominant one in almost all the games the team features in, yet it is those slight errors in judgment and the often criticized leaky Barcelona backline that is posing worrying questions after the performances in recent fixtures.
The forward line almost always gets the job done; but against the top sides of Europe who are capable of pouncing on that one rare occasion that Barcelona’s mishaps provide them, you really do need a master tactician watching over from the sideline. And that is what the Camp Nou outfit is short of precisely at this very moment.
|Messi & Co have been finding it difficult to showcase their usual ruthlessness|
Real Sociedad sprang a surprise by beating them on 19th January, not allowing the Blaugrana to bounce back from the draw suffered by the latter at home the previous week to a fiercely competitive Malaga side. These two encounters showed all the La Liga teams as well as those waiting in the Champions League that this season for Barcelona was not going to be like Arsenal’s unbeaten season in 2003-04. It was a pointer to the others that the four-time winners of Europe’s top honour could be brought down to earth and made to taste disappointment.
On 30th January, they drew with Real Madrid 1-1 in the Copa Del Rey semi-final first-leg, guilty of missing many clear-cut chances against a makeshift Los Blancos defense. Next they endured the same score line, but this time at the Mestalla Stadium. But the campaign’s sucker punch, the big blow came at the hands of AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16 first-leg. They were thoroughly humbled by a weaker Milan side on paper, with the scoreboard reading 2-0 to the home side at the end of the night.
It was now clearly visible that despite having players who are technically gifted and near invincible, despite boasting of pass-masters who could leave the opposition for dead, and despite boasting of one of the world’s most lethal finishers in the form of Lionel Messi, Barcelona lost in a shamefully comprehensive manner to a Rossoneri side which had an emphatic touch of youth and inexperience to it. Barcelona was missing their coach. Period.
|Jordi Roura has his hands full with some very tough fixtures - Is he the man?|
So with what is in all its likeliness Barcelona’s most crucial set of games of the season in the offing (consecutive games against Real Madrid and then a game later the home leg against AC Milan), the kind of lift their manager’s return could provide is huge. Vilanova’s return could be compared to that of signing a new player, which buoys players and supporters alike. The morality of the whole affair would take a hike and Barcelona’s trophy cabinet would definitely reap the benefits from the positive development at the sideline.
But alas, with Vilanova not set to make a comeback before the end of March, the scarlet and blue side are stuck with his assistant Jordi Roura by the side and the only way they can pull themselves out of the rubble is through some motivation from the experienced players on field. This is the time for the likes of Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi to really assume the mantle of much more responsible leaders so that they lead a strong charge for not just one title, but a convincing treble like in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge four years ago!
|Is Mourinho's charm on his players wearing off?|
Turning our attention to ‘The Special One’ presiding at the helm for Real Madrid now, this campaign has been anything but desirable for the 51-year old. Considered as one of the greatest coaches of all time, he has always had an air of controversy about him, always one for speaking his mind, however uncalled for might it be. Having tasted success at all of the clubs he has managed thus far in an envious career (Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real Madrid), Mourinho looks to be on his way out from Madrid after signing with the Galacticos in 2010, at least according to the rumuors doing the rounds. It does not come as a surprise to many though, as the Portuguese mastermind has never stayed at a club previously for no longer than four years.
Three years back when he took over from Manuel Pellegrini, Real were desperately looking to stop the Barcelona juggernaut, and club president Florentino Perez looked at Mourinho as the right person to carry out the job. Always known to be up for a challenge, the two-time Champions League winning coach took up the post with gusto and vowed to bring back the Real dominance in Spanish and European football. He successfully broke Real’s 18 year league cup trophy drought by beating Barcelona 1-0 in the final and lifted the Copa Del Rey at the end of his first season in-charge.
|Can the Special One conjure up yet another show of managerial brilliance?|
But after a one-and-a-half-year frustrating period in the La Liga during which he complained more than vociferously about his team’s bitterest rivals and was involved in his routine share of controversies, fruition came. Real Madrid won the Primera Liga title after a gap of 4 years and that too in the most convincing of manners, recording 100 points and scoring a record-breaking 121 goals in the process and ending with a goal difference of +89 goals. Such was the effect of Jose Mourinho. He had kept up his promise of Real dominance and Barca downfall.
But Jose Mourinho is known for fallouts. May it be with the club president or board of directors, players or supporters, there is one almost always round the corner. And in this season with the team not defending their title triumph from the last one, Mourinho has had to face a lot of criticism. That has subsequently led to speculation that he is on his way out at the end of this season with a host of top clubs being linked with his name, though his contract with the Madrid side runs till 2016.
Focusing on the players under Mourinho, his trusted lieutenants in almost all areas of the pitch have either suffered from lapses of concentration or have been outright unlucky this season. The defense, with a lot of emphasis on the goalkeeping has come under the spotlight for letting in strikes which they should be keeping out with consummate ease. The midfield has not been as sure in their play as last season and the attack though set alight by Cristiano Ronaldo, has looked somewhat off-colour this season, with the ex-Manchester United winger the only bright light.
|A mixture of bad luck and frustration has undone the Madridistas this season|
Injuries just before vital games have not helped the Real cause, with regularly reported rifts between the players and the manager not helping their title defense or Champions League charge. Hence one may conclude that Real is in a tight-spot of its own, but in complete contrast to the one at the Camp Nou. While the latter is suffering from lack of motivation from the bench, the former is facing the heat following shortfalls on the pitch.
In terms of fixtures though, the importance of the coming games is as important it is for their counterparts Barcelona. They face Barcelona away and then at home before their second-leg showdown at Old Trafford against Manchester United. These three ties will go on to define their season in surely two out of three competitions in which they seriously stand a chance to win the top prize.
What remains to be seen come the end of this week is whose deficiencies prove to be the bigger bane when both sides continue their long-standing rivalry – Barcelona’s Tito-less showing with world-class players or Real Madrid’s continued player inconsistency under a top Jose.
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