Saturday afternoon begins a journey. It is four matches long, but actually involved six. It will define the season, perhaps the era. It will supposedly make or break the career in the capital of a certain Portugeezer. It will definitely cement or erase the standard trope about Messi and his scoring abilities when it comes to Mourinho-led teams.
On Saturday the league is in play. On Wednesday it’s the Copa del Rey final. And the following week it’s the Champions League semi-finals. Three competitions that are being taken together, as if each match is a quarter of a single game, or an epic 4-game series. Winner takes all, of course, but it might be difficult to determine who won.
The most important competition is La Liga and whether or not it’s be “won”—Hristo Stoichkov believes it is all over on the league front, regardless of the outcome on Saturday—putting up a fight in the Bernabeu, taking it to Real Madrid, making them work for every inch, sets the right tone for the coming 3 matches. The team cannot, and will not, if prior results are any indication, take their foot off the gas even for a moment.
Barça enters with limited defensive cover: Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal are out injured while Javier Mascherano is suspended for yellow card accumulation. Up front Barça has also lost Bojan. Madrid are missing only Esteban Granero (yellow cards) and Fernando Gago (injury), though Benzema, Kaka, and Higuain are all short of 100%. The remaining players, however, are brilliant and will provide more than enough spectacle for the sporting public to devour. These are not just supremely talented athletes, but also fiercely competitive teams whose bosses will not let their heads go down even for a minute.
There is no recovery time, after all, between the first and second quarters, but it might all come down to the “halftime” encounters. Week 33 sends Osasuna to the Camp Nou while Real Madrid travel to Valencia (playing twice in a row in the Mestalla) and Week 34 between the two Champions League matches sees Barça visiting Real Sociedad while RM hosts Zaragoza. On paper these are vastly different schedules, with Osasuna being weak and Valencia sitting in third, but Osasuna will be a tough physical test for Barça, as it always is. It’s not as clear-cut as you would think.
Guardiola’s penchant for pushing his squad to the limit could backfire on him if any of these matches renders a player injured or gives them dead leg. Or it could pay extreme dividends as it has in the past. There’s little doubt that these two coaches know each other and will be looking for every possible advantage, so if Mourinho is going to field several “B squads” for these Liga jornadas he might end up with a fresher squad while Barça runs away with the title.
There are 21 points remaining in the league schedule, meaning winning out would put Barça at 105 points. That is extremely unlikely, not simply because of fatigue, but also because it would mean topping the previous record of 99. Unthinkable, of course. Madrid, if they win out, could end up with 97, 5 back of Barça’s potential 102 (because they can’t both win out), which would be slightly more tragic than last year’s 96 point final tally for the whites. If Barça wins on Saturday, though, Mourinho will have no chance of surpassing the league endeavours of Pellegrini, but he will have already far surpassed him in the cup and European competition.
Guardiola has previously warned that the 2-6 will not happen again in our lifetime. Fair enough. The 5-0 was at home, after all and 2-0 and 1-0 have been the other scores since that day in April 2009. And this is arguably a different team than the one that failed to really show up at the Camp Nou. But it is also arguably a different team in blaugrana too. Having faced their February doldrums and come out with an 8 point league lead and a place in Champions League semi-final for the third year running, the team has shown itself mentally stronger than many would give credit for. They no longer fall apart when put under intense end-of-season pressure (and haven’t since Guardiola took over) and there is an extra glint of readiness whenever they take the field.
Whatever the math, though, whatever the possibilities, on Saturday, it is all put aside for 90 minutes of riveting theatre. Barnun and Bailey has nothing on this show. And hopefully at the end of the day, el cant will ring loud and clear through the capital’s entryways.
Follow ESPNsoccernet's Football Correspondents on Twitter