x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mum's the word ahead of el clasico

Guardiola does not want to make statements which he feels will feed the mind-games and tactics of Mourinho who thrives on public conflict.

Anything Lionel Messi can do, Cristiano Ronaldo can match.

The brilliant Barcelona striker hit a hat-trick in his side's 8-0 demolition of Almeria on Saturday night - the Catalans' biggest away win since 1959.

Two hours later, Ronaldo got a hat-trick as Real Madrid blitzed the Basques of Athletic Bilbao 5-1.

Messi has scored 13 goals so far this season - one behind Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi.

Great names like David Villa and Diego Forlan are trailing far behind the best two players in the world who boast phenomenal strike rates of more than a goal a game.

Messi has scored 47 league goals in 45 games since the start of the 2009/10 season - that is more than the entire Deportivo La Coruna team. The Argentine also broke his own record of scoring in six consecutive games.

Messi and Ronaldo meet on Monday night at Camp Nou and despite Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho saying little or nothing, everyone else is talking about the first el clasico of the season in Spain.

Guardiola does not want to get into a media spat with Mourinho. He led his side to two derby victories last season - the difference between winning the league and finishing second to their great rivals.

Both he and his players believe they can beat Real again because they are a superior and better established team.

I have spoken to several in private and they have that self-assured belief. In public? Nothing.

Guardiola has banned his players from doing interviews before the Real game, even those renowned for being careful with their words who had already agreed to meet journalists.

Appointments were cancelled as the usually media friendly club have battened down the hatches.

The Barca coach fears that any quotes given will be twisted by a sensationalist media.

He does not want to make statements which he feels will feed the mind-games and tactics of Mourinho, who thrives on public conflict and has taken on all-comers in his first season as a coach in Spain. And he is probably right.

So it is left for the media to hammer home any prejudices and slights according to their affinities. Mourinho's Real are the greatest thing on earth according to the Madrid press, while they are the devil incarnate in Catalan eyes.

Publicly, Barca may say that they are focussing on tomorrow's Champions League game against Panathinaikos in Athens, but they are thinking about the big one. Gerard Pique was not risked in Almeria because a yellow card would have meant him missing the Real game.

Real, who only need a point from tonight's Champions League game against Ajax to finish top of their group, may rest key players. They need to avoid injuries to key players because they know the clasico is a game they cannot afford to lose.

The league leaders remain confident and Ricardo Carvalho, one of the few players who has spoken about the game, said: "I know we can beat Barcelona."

Ahead of his first clasico, Mourinho played down the game and told journalists about how much he was enjoying life in Madrid.

"I am completely happy at Real Madrid because we are building a good team, earning good results, playing well and coming up with something important: a great empathy with our fans," he said.

"The Bernabeu gets packed, the fans fervently support us and the players feel their passion. Those things are sometimes more important than results themselves."

And despite saying that, "this clasico will not be decisive because it's one of 38 games," he is kidding nobody.

The result is all that matters because if Real lose, the chances of the "Special One" wrestling the title away from Barcelona - the very job he was brought to do - will decrease dramatically.

 

sports@thenational.ae