Real Madrid host Barcelona Wednesday in the third of four epic clashes between the bitter Spanish rivals with a berth in the Champions League final at Wembley on the line. (Live on FX, coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET.) Ahead of this hotly anticipated clash, the FOX Soccer crew break down one of the biggest games and fiercest rivalries in world football.
Q. First off, let’s talk about Real Madrid and where they are coming off that huge Copa Del Rey win over Barcelona on the weekend.
WARREN BARTON: This first leg plays into Real Madrid’s hands, I think. They lose 5-0 in that first meeting, then gut out that 1-1 tie, and now they come in having won in the Copa Del Rey. Their players are saying "this Barcelona machine, well, we beat them." I think Mourinho was a huge part of that Copa Del Rey win, but it was the players who shut out Barcelona and that gives them a huge psychological boost. They know this team is beatable, and they’ve planted a seed of doubt. It’s like a boxer who has gone undefeated and suddenly he loses. That’s a big factor.
NICK WEBSTER: You cannot overstate the impact the Copa Del Rey has had on the psychology of this game. I think we saw that in the previous five games that Real Madrid just hadn’t performed against Barcelona. And this is a typical jumping off point for Mourinho and his teams. Remember, with Chelsea, they win the [League] Cup, and that was the start of their great run under him. It’s all about mentality. Mourinho is a winner and he is teaching this team how to win. Barcelona should be worried. These games haven’t been spectacular affairs – I don’t think we’ll see the likes of that 5-0 thrashing again – they’re ugly. But Mourinho doesn’t want to play football, he wants to win football matches.
KEITH COSTIGAN: I don’t know if Real Madrid have an edge after that game. I think the win gives their players confidence, though, and they’ve played Barcelona twice now and haven’t lost, and that’s important. Mourinho is the best at manipulating situations and motivating his guys, and his players tend to buy into his philosophy. So, more confident? Yes. But an edge? No, because if we say that, then we’re forgetting about Barcelona, who play superb football day-in and day-out. Barcelona will not hit the panic button. They didn’t always have a cutting edge in the Copa, but their history suggests that it is only a matter of time. Just as Madrid’s confidence is up, Barcelona have 100% belief in their own style.
Q. Let’s talk a little about them: Are they still the best club in the world?
WARREN: Yes, I still think they are the best team in the world, for so many reasons. The style of football, the quality of the players, the management of Pep Guardiola – and you know, I never saw him give the ball away when I played against him! – who is a true gentlemen as well. They have so much pride, and you can see why. It’s in the way the club is run, the conduct of players on and off the pitch, and the football they play is what we all want to see. That’s how you play the game. They are formidable. They score great goals, beautiful goals, clinical goals, and they don’t give up many goals. They do have a weakness, as we’ve seen, but this is one of the great teams. They’re like the Real Madrid of the 1950s or Liverpool in the 70s. They are that kind of legendary team.
NICK: If you give them time to play, then yes, they are the best team in the world. But Mourinho has put them under pressure early, packing the midfield , not allowing Xavi or Andres Iniesta time on the ball and keeping them from making those pretty triangles. Have Barcelona been damaged psychologically? I think they have. Pep doesn’t look as relaxed as he did a few weeks ago. Yes, they have La Liga in the bag, but they want the European Cup. And that favorites tag is weighting on them.
Q. We have a big matchup here, obviously, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
NICK: I’m fascinated by this. These are the two superstars, and with Messi breaking the half century on the weekend you have to take your hat off to what is an incredible achievement. Yet, Ronaldo is right hot on his heels. It’s going to be interesting to see who stamps his authority on the game. Madrid is not shy about fouling, whereas Barceolona tends to let them have space. I’ll predict this: if Ronaldo scores, Madrid wins. If Messi scores, Barca wins.
KEITH: I think the main difference is that Ronaldo is a match-winner on any day while Messi makes everyone around him better. Some people will disagree with that, but I see Messi as a guy that, while he has 50 goals, his assists are also in double digits. His movement, his work rate and his assistance makes everyone better. Ronaldo, on the other hand, isn’t as involved when he’s not scoring. There was a great stat from that 5-0 game that noted Messi had regained possession of the ball five times, and Ronaldo hadn’t done it once. We know Ronaldo can win games, but Messi is the all-round better player. I actually think the key for Madrid is Xabi Alonso, who has to set and dictate the pace.
Q. What do you guys expect from this one?
KEITH: I expect Barcelona to go forward and Madrid to try to stifle them, and pick their moments, Madrid will also try to be very physical. But games like this can change on one little thing — an early goal, an injury — that means a shift in tactics. Both these teams know each other and I don’t think either has much of a home advantage. I expect the matches to be tight, and I expect them both to play their games. Madrid will be disciplined, and Barcelona will pass and flow.
NICK: I think a lot will come down to the ref. Let’s be honest, Madrid were lucky to finish that league game last week with 10 men on the field, and so if Wolfgang Stark allows them to play that physical game, it’s in Madrid’s favor. Stark is very experienced and I don’t think he’s going to take any nonsense, but the first few minutes will be interesting, just to see how much he lets go. If he forces it to be an open game, that suits Barcelona.
WARREN: I think Madrid have the slight advantage, and it’s just going off the back of that last encounter. That’s all. You’re only as good as your last game, and Barcelona lost the last meeting. Madrid also have a slight edge at home – but I don’t expect fireworks. Mourinho will try to do the same thing again as we saw at the Copa Del Rey. Ronaldo and Di Maria will try to exploit the space that Barcelona’s fullbacks leave because they love to get forward, and Xabi and Mesut Ozil – both phenomenal players – will have to take care of the midfield. But, honestly, as a pundit: This game is so hard to call.
Real Madrid hosts Barcelona on Wednesday, the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League semifinal tie. Coverage begins on FX at 2 p.m. ET.