Sergio Ramos insists Real Madrid are not viewing themselves as favourites ahead of the Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona.
Confidence is soaring in the Madrid camp having last week ended a near three-year trophy drought by beating Barca to win the Copa del Rey, and then at the weekend they showed their formidable strength in depth when a supposed second-string side thumped third-placed Valencia 6-3 at the Mestalla – becoming the first away side ever to score six times at Valencia in the league.
Only two of Madrid’s starting line-up from the cup final began that match, and with an almost full squad available for Wednesday’s match – Ricardo Carvalho is suspended and Sami Khedira injured – Jose Mourinho has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal as he looks to move a step closer to becoming the first coach to conquer Europe with three different clubs.
It is a different story for Barca boss Pep Guardiola, who has something of defensive crisis with left-backs Eric Abidal, Maxwell and Adriano all definitely missing, while Carles Puyol and Gabriel Milito are both battling to recover from injuries, although they have both been included in a 20-man squad.
With their injury problems and Madrid’s good form in mind, Guardiola suggested at the weekend that Mourinho’s men were favourites ahead of Wednesday’s game at the Bernabeu, but Ramos has played down that tag.
"We don’t regard ourselves as favourites because I don’t think it serves for anything. If anything has led to success it’s been simplicity, humility and hard work. And those are the values we must uphold," he said on his club’s website.
"Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have great players and nobody can predict what will happen. We all know the responsibility we have and what it takes to defend these colours and we know we have to give it everything."
Guardiola also made sweeping changes for his side’s league clash with Osasuna on Saturday, and although the Catalan giants were nowhere near as impressive as Madrid were against Valencia, their 2-0 home win over Osasuna moved them a step closer to the Primera Division title, boasting an eight-point lead over Madrid with only five games remaining.
Further good news for Barca came with David Villa ending his 11-game goalless streak for the club with the opener in that match, while substitute Lionel Messi wrapped up the win late on with his 50th competitive club goal of an incredible season – a new record for Spanish football.
Barca, who are also without striker Bojan Krkic through injury, may not be at full strength heading into the third of four ‘Clasicos’ with Madrid in the space of 18 days, but midfielder Andres Iniesta is still in optimistic mood.
"We would all have settled for being where we are in the league, being in the Champions League semi finals and playing the Copa del Rey final," said Iniesta, who is available for Barca having escaped an extra one-game ban by UEFA after being cleared of allegedly getting deliberately booked in the quarter-final first leg against Shakhtar Donetsk.
"We have to go out with what we’ve got. We have to find strength where there is none. The players are fine, and we are focused on what we have ahead of us. And what we have ahead of us is something very nice indeed to focus on."
The Spain international, whose last-minute goal earned Barca a semi-final win against Chelsea two years ago before the Catalan club went on to beat Manchester United in the final, added on his club’s website: "It will be tough and difficult, but we have a positive attitude and are very excited to know that we are very close to being in another final.
"It would be a dream to play at Wembley. I don’t mind if I don’t score, or even play, as long as we are in that final."
Madrid, looking for a record 10th European cup crown after progressing past the last 16 for the first time in seven years, have beaten Barca twice before in the semi-finals of this competition, and on both occasions – in 1960 and 2002 – went on to lift the trophy.
However, Barca have had the better of the recent meetings between the two Spanish superpowers, at least up until last week. They had won five successive ‘Clasicos’ – one short of equalling the record of consecutive wins – before being held 1-1 by 10-man Madrid in the league 10 days ago and then losing 1-0 after extra-time in the cup final.