After taking care of Spurs in the return leg of their quarterfinals Champions League tie, setting a semifinal date with Barcelona, Los Blancos hosted the Catalan side Saturday night at the Bernabeu. Entering the 32nd week (of 38) of play eight points adrift from their northern rivals, the league was undoubtedly a long shot; however, when Sami Khedria’s 89th minute game winning attempt was hit right at Victor Valdes and Barcelona earned a share of the spoils, Madrid’s faintly flickering title hopes were blown out. Jose Mourinho had already made his and his side’s intentions clear a fortnight earlier, fielding a weak side in a league fixture (at a point where three points were vital every week) in favor of resting some key play makers in preparation of their first leg with Tottenham. With league hopes diminished, Madrid are still, nonetheless, in position for what could be a very memorable finish to the 2010-2011 campaign.
To that point, the next sixteen days will define this campaign and very possibly the Mourinho era. Wednesday in Valencia, we will see the two Spanish giants clash to determine the champion of the Copa del Rey. While not the most prestigious of trophies for two sides aiming at European glory, a midweek victory would set the stage for the next two weeks where the two sides will fight for a place in the Champions League final over two legs. Not to mention, end Los Blancos’ trophy drought, which would take the very large monkey off the back of the capital city club.
So who will be the difference maker and where will said difference come from? One can easily point to the ever pressing debate between who the world’s best footballer is (with all due respect to Ronaldo’s quality and his impact on the pitch for Real Madrid, one would have a very difficult time arguing that Leo Messi is not in a league of his own). When it comes down to Ronaldo v. Messi debate, though, the Portugal international could certainly reverse his fortunes and the popular opinion of himself against his Argentine rival over the next 16 days. Barcelona's dominance, having won the previous five fixtures before Saturday’s draw (many by unsavory margins), has only added to the Argentina star’s allure; however, it will be the form of the Mesut Ozils and Marcelos that will ultimately determine the fate of these three fixtures. Brushing aside the Catalans en route to a Champions League final and a Copa del Rey championship against their northern tormentors may cause some pundits to reevaluate their Messi over Ronaldo stance.
Both sides feature quality, attacking full backs on their flanks, which is where I think the most interesting match-up will arise. Dani Alves has been in and out of favor in a campaign where his compatriot in Madrid, Marcelo, has made a name for himself. A match-up between the two will certainly make for some entertaining football, creating a situation where a flanking counter attack could easily determine the fate of a fixture. There is little question that, when debating creative midfielders, Xavi is in a league of his own; however, Mesut Ozil has been impressing and continually improving since his World Cup breakout in South Africa. The German international may not be able to pick out a run with such quality as his Spanish counterpart, but the young midfielder’s form will essentially if Madrid are to overcome a stoic Barcelona defence.
It is another topic completely to debate the top-heavy nature of the Spanish league; however, in this scenario it makes the Clasico that much flashier (when one evaluates the talent at every position on the pitch). Any position one picks out there is a superstar match-up. Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets as holding midfielders, Casillas or Valdes in net, all 22 that take the pitch in Valencia on Wednesday are world class footballers. So the stage has been set, league title in the hands of Barca or not, how we look back on this campaign and the Mourinho will be determined in the next fortnight.
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