Pitchside Europe

Cup Clasico now critical for Mourinho

Huge queues snaked away from Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium on Monday morning, a sign of optimism around the club which has been absent in recent months. Football’s finest venue will stage some huge games in the next month.

The fans were waiting to pay between 40-140 euros for tickets to see their side play Barcelona at home tonight. Tickets are far more expensive for the second leg of the Copa del Rey at Camp Nou at the end of February.

Spain may be in the midst of an economic crisis and Barca offered tickets for their quarter-final against Malaga from just 9 euros, but such concessions are dropped for any game against their main rivals. Starting with that second leg, Madrid play Barcelona twice in four days before they travel to Old Trafford on March 5.

But that’s then, a month away. Much will happen in-between, especially at Madrid, where the soap opera that surrounds the club is always bursting with sub-plots.

News of a dressing room rift between the players and Jose Mourinho, with the players insisting that either their boss goes or they do, was swiftly denied by the club president Florentino Perez. Few are convinced by the denial, especially when the journalist partner of Iker Casillas did an interview for Mexican television in which she stated that the players and Mourinho are split.

“The atmosphere in the dressing room isn’t good,” said Sara Carbonero. “It’s an open secret that that the players don’t get on with the coach. Right now the dressing room is divided and we’ll have to wait until the end of the season to see if Mourinho leaves, because right now he’s got a lot on his hands at the club.”

Yet Madrid have improved where it matters, on the pitch. They hammered Valencia 5-0 away in the league, with all goals coming in the first half. Whatever their problems, los Blancos have enough quality players to destroy any team.

They knocked Valencia out of the cup too, then hammered Getafe 4-0 on Sunday, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick inside ten minutes. Lionel Messi scored four later in the day. It’s like USA v USSR in an ’80s arms race, they’re so far ahead of the rest of the world.

Ronaldo has been the stand-out star for his team, his relationship with fans much better than when he first arrived in Spain. He’s scoring a goal a game, something club legends like Alfredo Di Stefano didn’t manage, and Madridistas are convinced he’s better than Messi.

While the Argentine (who is expected to sign a deal to keep him at Camp Nou until 2018 this week) scores more goals – 44 vs 33 so far this season – Ronaldo is playing in an inferior team, without Xavi (who has signed a contract to stay until 2016) and Iniesta behind him.

Madrid’s talisman has also scored seven in the last six clasicos. Clasicos occur far too often – an average of six times a season in the last three years – but they remain compulsive for many reasons, principally the presence of Messi and Ronaldo on the same pitch.

Ronaldo is not alone in being worthy of praise. Attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil has been sublime, while winger Angel Di Maria, one of the side’s best players last season, has recovered from his dire form so far this term.

Madrid will be missing key players for tonight’s key cup tie. Sergio Ramos, Di Maria and Fabio Coentrao are absent through injury and suspension, as is Casillas. While Madrid have bought a 4m euro replacement goalkeeper in Diego Lopez from Sevilla, he’s no Casillas. Barcelona have goalkeeping issues of their own. Jose Manuel Pinto usually starts in Copa del Rey matches, but he’s not as good as Valdes and was at fault in both quarter-final legs against Malaga.

Victor Valdes has said that he won’t sign a new contract beyond his current one in 2014. Those who claim it’s largely about money, or ‘respect’ as the players and their agents term it, have a point, but I interviewed Valdes face-to-face for an hour last month and he was inquisitive about football outside of Spain. I genuinely think he wants to play abroad and experience new cultures.

Tonight’s game is vital for Madrid. Barca knocked Madrid out of the cup last season, 4-3 on aggregate, but then Madrid went on to win the league, something which is not going to happen this season.

With their league title defence finished almost before it had started, Madrid have placed more emphasis on the cup. If their depleted side can beat Barcelona tonight, it will make a bad season bearable. If they don’t, then expect the fans who queued for tickets on Monday to resume their anti-Mourinho rhetoric.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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