EL CLASICO

Vilanova showing no Clasico nerves

UNDER CONTROL
Barca's Tito Vilanova remains confident before first Clasico match against Real Madrid.
FOX Soccer.com DERMOT CORRIGAN
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EL CLASICO

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At Tito Vilanova’s first press conference as Barcelona head coach in July, there was only one pressing subject. No it was not the club’s summer transfer targets, nor its pre-season preparation plans, or even what the former assistant planned to change at the club as he replaced his old boss Pep Guardiola.

“The fact that, after a year, we are still talking about what happened with (José) Mourinho in the Supercopa - it tires me," Vilanova said in response to yet another question about the infamous "poke in the eye" by the Real Madrid coach during last season's Super Cup match at the Camp Nou.

"The punishment is not whether one or two games are given,” said Vilanova today. “The greatest punishment is that these images will last for many years. (Mourinho) greeted me in the game at the Bernabéu and I do not have any bad feelings."

Despite Vilanova's claims to have long put the incident – where the Madrid coach walked up behind Vilanova before deliberately jabbing a finger into his eye socket - behind him, he would surely have expected the barrage of questions. The line about “images lasting for many years” was taken by many Barcelona fans as a deserved return jab at Mourinho, but the Portuguese wisely chose not to see it that way, and finally offered an almost-apology in a FOX Soccer interview during Real's pre-season tour of the United States.

“I should obviously not have done what I did,'' Mourinho said. ''Nevertheless, there was a whole story behind that that made me lose a little control. The one who failed there was me. There are no problems now between Tito and myself. Thankfully, the story is over and we must just hope to avoid such instances in the future.''

The two coaches might have wished the story over, but in a soccer-obsessed country like Spain, with two daily sports newspapers each in Madrid and Barcelona happy to heat the rivalry, fans deciding to forgive and forget was unlikely. So when Spanish football association (RFEF) president Ángel María Villar celebrated Spain’s Euro 2012 win by announcing a general suspension amnesty the date was set: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, Thursday August, 23.

Even last weekend’s La Liga kickoff, with Madrid drawing 1-1 at home to Valencia and Barcelona hammering of Real Sociedad, was only seen by partisans on both sides as a preview to the main season opener. A full house of 98,772 spectators is expected Thursday night at the Camp Nou, despite the very late kickoff, with many millions more watching worldwide on television. All eyes will be on the two coaches for the traditional pre-game handshake.

Mourinho nevertheless again tried to play down the game's significance when he spoke to reporters Wednesday morning at Madrid's Valdebebas facility, pointing out that La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League were more important trophies.

"If losing the Super Cup works as a motivation for winning La Liga I would take that, but I believe it is the least important of the four competitions,” said Mourinho. “In my opinion it will have no consequences for the rest of the season, but it is a competition we want to win and our opponents too. Between rivals, you never want to lose."

It is doubtful Mourinho really believes that the game will have no consequence, as last year's clash showed. Madrid's on-field performance was overshadowed by the late brawl which brought red cards for Marcelo, Mesut Ozil and sparked their coach’s touchline antics. Over the two legs Ozil, Karim Benzema and particularly Cristiano Ronaldo had learned that they could pierce through Barca’s suspect defense.

Some trademark Lionel Messi brilliance saw his side claim a third successive Super Cup trophy 5-4 on aggregate, but Madrid's players knew they would need to physically bully Barca to beat them. This was proved emphatically in April, when Cristiano Ronaldo hit the winner as Madrid deservedly triumphed 2-1 at the Camp Nou and all but sealed the La Liga crown.

Mourinho confirmed Wednesday that defender Pepe would miss the game as he recovered from a clash of heads with teammate Iker Casillas in Sunday’s disappointing La Liga opener. Other likely changes from that game include German international Sami Khedira replacing Lass Diarra in midfield and Benzema taking Gonzalo Higuaín’s spot at center forward.

Vilanova is also likely to reshuffle his starting lineup with Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta and Alexis Sánchez further strengthening the team which swatted Real Sociedad aside last weekend. Monday’s $25 million signing from Arsenal, Alex Song, could make the substitutes bench, alongside David Villa, who made an emotional return after an eight month layoff out last Sunday.

After Barcelona had trained Wednesday evening, Vilanova calmly batted aside attempts' to bait him with an earlier Mourinho comment about the current Barcelona side's place among soccer's great teams.

“This team has won 14 of the 19 competitions it has entered and will be remembered in football history,” he said. “The players have done spectacular things. But I respect everyone’s opinion, everyone is free to think whatever they want.”

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Vilanova also answered shortly when asked whether he personally had much riding on the game's result.

“I do not think that a lot is at stake for me in each game, I want to do my job in relaxed way,” he said. “I know the match is important, but I cannot not go about my work thinking the sky could fall on me if we did not win.”

All the attention on the two coaches means that for once Messi and fellow superstar Cristiano Ronaldo go into the game under the radar. Ronaldo has outperformed Messi in recent encounters, hitting the winner in April's title decider and having found the net in his last three visits to Barcelona. Meanwhile, the Argentine has not scored against Madrid since last year's Super Cup second leg, going 362 minutes without a goal against his side's biggest rivals.

Regardless, Messi looks to have benefitted from a full summer's rest when plundering two quick first half goals on Sunday, while Ronaldo admitted that he was not yet operating at full health having had a shortened pre-season preparation after Euro 2012. The differing form of their respective talismans makes a Barcelona first leg win the most likely first leg result.

This would give the Catalans an advantage to take to Madrid for next Wednesday's second game at the Bernabéu. Plus, it would make for an excellent start to Vilanova's reign as head coach. And maybe most importantly, for Barca fans at least, it would be one in the eye for Mourinho.

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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