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It’s Real Mourinho vs. Spain FC as La Liga begins

Real Madrid and Barcelona will battle it out for the Spanish football league title, but this time the rivalry has a host of intriguing subplots.


Guardiola (left) and Mourinho will play out a fascinating rivalry. Photo:

Nobody can accuse Spain’s top teams of lacking stars. Real Madrid has Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Iker Casillas and now Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira. Barcelona, meanwhile, has eight players from Spain’s World Cup-winning squad, including Xavi Hernández, David Villa and Pedro Rodríguez.

And yet, as the Spanish league season gets underway, the eye is drawn not to midfielder Andrés Iniesta, a football genius in an accountant’s body, or the stepovers and hair gel of Ronaldo, but rather the two sharply dressed men overseeing these players at the side of the pitch. This season, perhaps more than any other, is a battle between two managerial auteurs: Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola and Madrid’s José Mourinho. Each has fierce convictions about the game and each has won an enormous amount of silverware in a relatively short career.

It is tempting to pitch this imminent rivalry as Beauty vs. the Beast. Guardiola’s Barcelona are 21st century cousins of the Dutch total football teams of the seventies, jealously hoarding the ball with swift passing and movement and always pushing for another goal. Mourinho, meanwhile, is known as a pragmatist who will cede possession if it means his team can win ugly by scoring on the break.

That kind of approach, of course, will not wash with Madrid fans, or their emperor-like president, Florentino Pérez. Real Madrid may have a less clearly defined style of play than Barcelona, historically speaking, but the club still craves the beautiful game. Mourinho knows this and his extraordinary mind surely knows how to ensure his team play accordingly.

With the raft of mainly young talent Madrid has brought in over the summer allied to last season’s bank-breaking Galáctico arrivals, the Portuguese has the raw materials to create a devastating side. A midfield containing Khedira, Özil and Xabi Alonso, for example, will surely be a match for Barcelona’s Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Iniesta.

Last season, under the shoddily treated Manuel Pellegrini, Madrid came close to realising its potential, finishing the season second to Barça but with a club record number of points. The problem was in the big games: Real Madrid have lost their last four encounters with their Catalan rivals and their recent torrid form in Europe was repeated as they were knocked out of the Champions League by Lyon in the last 16.

That is, above all, why Mourinho has been hired. Having led Porto, Chelsea and Inter to league titles and two of those teams to Champions League glory, he is the man for the big occasion, priming his players to perfection and calmly implementing tactical and personnel changes during games.

World Cup burn-out?

Barcelona goes into the season with the momentum of last season’s league title followed by its contribution to the World Cup victory. There are doubts hanging over the team, however. Firstly, the players’ exertions in South Africa might catch up with them as winter approaches, especially given the thinness of Guardiola’s squad. With little to spend on new players the champions will have to look for reinforcements to the youth team, which has given them so much quality in recent years.  Also, can the restless, workaholic coach motivate his charges once again, after two seasons of success?

But while the two managers will play out an absorbing battle, there are also plenty of intriguing subplots to the rivalry. How would Madrid’s all-Portuguese defensive pairing of Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho compare with Barcelona’s hermetic duo of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué (the latter surely a candidate for Europe’s finest, most cultured defender)? While Lionel Messi looks every bit the player he was last season, can Mourinho instil in his countryman Ronaldo some of the team ethic that was missing from his game last season?

And off the pitch, the relationships between Guardiola and Mourinho and their respective directors will also be under scrutiny. Neither man has been at one club for a long period and it surely will not take much meddling from the suits upstairs to upset either of them or even provoke a walk-out.

But for a few answers to these questions, look no further than November 28 at the Camp Nou, the first meeting between these two teams of the season. There will be a lot more than just three points at stake.

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Published: Aug 27 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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