x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Opportunity for Real Madrid to seal the deal

A win or draw at Barcelona tonight will give Jose Mourinho's men virtual hold over Primera Liga title.

Cristiano Ronaldo, right, the Real Madrid player, has scored 41 league goals so far this season, but so has Barca's Lionel Messi. Lluis Gene / AFP
Cristiano Ronaldo, right, the Real Madrid player, has scored 41 league goals so far this season, but so has Barca's Lionel Messi. Lluis Gene / AFP

BARCELONA // A Barcelona delegation flew to Munich yesterday with a precious cargo, the European Cup. The Champions League winners hope to reclaim it in four weeks by returning to Munich and becoming the first team to retain it since AC Milan two decades ago.

After Wednesday's semi-final first-leg defeat at Chelsea, a final appearance is questionable, let alone a first European Cup final between Barca and Real Madrid.

It is rare that both teams go into a clasico after defeats, but they do tonight after Real's loss at Bayern Munich on Tuesday. Both remain slight favourites to overcome their one-goal deficits, with Johann Cruyff predicting: "I think Barca and Madrid will meet in the final. They have more quality than their opponents and they will be much stronger at home."

Both are now otherwise occupied with the clasico tonight. Never in history have Barcelona and Real Madrid met so many times in such a short period.

Tonight's Camp Nou clasico will be the 10th meeting between the pair in little over a year, with Barcelona in the ascendancy with four wins, four draws and just one defeat.

Pep Guardiola's side knocked Real out of the Champions League last season and the Copa del Rey this term. They also won the Spanish Super Cup at Real's expense in another feisty set of games.

The Madrid side's only triumph was in the Copa del Rey final a year ago. That was Jose Mourinho's only clasico win since taking charge in 2010, while Guardiola has won five, the most famous being when the teams last met at Camp Nou in the league and Barca dominated 5-0.

There is little sign of clasico fatigue. Black market tickets are changing hands for over €400 (Dh1,940) and the game is a 98,000 sell-out. Fans will hold up cards to form a huge mosaic in Catalan and Barca colours with the words "Som I Serem" (We are and we will be) picked out for the expected global television audience of 400 million, who will be keen to see if either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can add to their record 41 league goals so far this season.

Real players will be left in no doubt that they are in the home of the enemy, but can they avoid defeat at a rival who have won 23 of the 26 games at home this season and drawn the other three?

It is a vital match. Real lead Barca by four points – down from 10 a month ago – as they go in pursuit of a first title since 2008. Lose, as they tend to at Camp Nou, and that will be down to a solitary point.

It is impossible to gauge Mourinho's view on the game since he has decided that he is not speaking to the media either before or after league matches.

The Catalan daily Sport thinks it knows Mourinho's mind and led with the headline "Madrid to play dirty" yesterday, while Real's assistant coach Aitor Karanka boasted that: "Our behaviour has been exemplary at Camp Nou in the past." Millions of Catalans may disagree, but the truth tends to get lost in the war of words and physical indiscretions which cloud every clasico.

Barca have responded well to their two setbacks this season, winning eight successive games after the loss at Getafe and nine after defeat in Pamplona. Real have been beaten only twice in 33 league games, the last one at home to Barca in December. In February, Guardiola claimed that the title was Real's. The Whites will believe that only if they avoid losing tonight.

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