Bettering Barca all that matters for Mou

Bettering Barca all that matters for Mou

Published Jan. 18, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

It seems almost asinine to think that just over two years ago, when Cristiano Ronaldo made his Clasico debut, Real Madrid’s meeting with Barcelona was overshadowed by an individual battle. Two years removed from the all-consuming Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi debates, it bares reminding that this was once a real and distracting discussion. It was almost a let down when their first Clasico featured only one goal, a winner tallied by an obscure Barcelona substitute - Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

At least, compared to the pedestals upon which Ronaldo and Messi sat, Zlatan was relatively obscure. Now it’s Ronaldo’s place in the “best player in the world” debate that seems obscure.

The two-plus years that have followed have been the most productive of Messi’s career, rendering the debate droll. With 122 goals (in 123 matches), two world titles, two La Liga crowns and a Champions League in the 26 months after Ronaldo first led Real to Camp Nou, Messi has transcended his contemporaries and is now more readily compared to the history’s best.

Adding all of those team accomplishments to Messi’s resume may be just when considering the player’s legacy, but when comparing him to Ronaldo, it seems unfair. While this fall’s Tim Tebow craze may have unfortunately rekindled the idea that we can judge an individual exclusively on team outcomes, that specious logic is almost always carried too far.


Ronaldo has scored 103 goals (in 108 games) since his first Clasico and, although he hasn’t managed the same trophy haul as his Barca-based counterpart, his header in last April’s Copa del Rey final secured Real Madrid’s first major trophy since 2008. Surely that (and the goal-haul) has got to count for something, even if relatively so?

But those are the repercussions of this rivalry. Barcelona versus Real Madrid doesn’t only decide trophies. It settles debates, calcifies opinion, and entrenches reputations, for better or worse. As a result, Cristiano’s claim to being the world’s best is stranded in 2009. It’s not an entirely unjust outcome, and it’s certainly no reason to pity the player. He’s just going to have to settle for being the former best, now only second-most-awesome, footballer on the planet. Sniff, sniff.

Barcelona has left Ronaldo and Mourinho in danger of looking second-best. (Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

The spotlight of all these Clasicos has also taken its toll on others. While Real left back Marcelo will never be confused with a defensive stalwart, his performances against Barcelona have only reminded us his best use is going forward (never mind that Barcelona makes many good defenders look bad).

The same can be said for Barcelona’s Dani Alves, who has been pushed forward from his right back position twice in recent Clasicos. That’s a hat-tip to the attacking quality of Alves as well as a concession that leaving him at right back, matched up against Ronaldo, may concede too much to Real Madrid.

Then there’s the case of Pepe, one of the best defenders in the world who has been likened to a Brazilian-Portuguese bulldozer in the wake of last year’s Clasico performances. As FOX Soccer’s Andy Brassell pointed out, Real Madrid outscored Barcelona while Pepe was on the pitch last spring, though keeping the “escavadeirao” on the field was the problem. In the wake of Pepe being adjudged to have put studs to Alves, earning him a dismissal, he’s seen as a red card waiting to happen, even if the numbers don’t bare that out. Alves being seen as an embellisher may be the more just reputation to come from the incident, something that shouldn’t forgive a veteran defender for raising his boot so high.

Off the field, reputations are also at stake, none more so than José Mourinho’s.

While leading Inter Milan to Champions League glory in the spring of 2010, Mourinho crystallized his status as the world’s best coach, his tactical acumen lauded in devising the plan that derailed Barcelona. Last year, that status took a hit when The Special One was unable to deliver league or European silverware to the Bernabeu’s throngs. It’s as if some Madridistras can’t remember how much they celebrated winning Copa.

But just as focus on Clasico outcomes has harshly tarnished others, so it is potentially clouding perceptions of Mourinho. Generally, Real Madrid’s lack of success last season has been painted as a disappointment and an implicit indictment of Mourinho, judgment that overlooks the huge progress the man has made.

Real Madrid and Mourinho milked their Copa Del Rey triumph over Barcelona last year. (Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

After losing his first Clasico 5-0 last November, Mourinho’s had Real Madrid as close to Barcelona has they’ve been since Pep Guardiola replaced Frank Rijkaard. While some would downplay the significance of the Copa del Rey, Mourinho delivered a piece of silverware Barcelona clearly wanted. It’s admirable progress considering the huge chasm that had formed between the sides prior to his arrival.

The adjustments Mourinho made between November and April showed his impact. In his first Clasico, Mourinho could do little but watch an impotent midfield stand flat-footed as Barcelona’s creators were given license to pick apart a back line left helpless for lack of cover. By April, Mourinho had made his adjustments, with Pepe and Sami Khedira leading a masterful display of marking and pressure through Barcelona’s midfield. As a result, a highly-debatable red card to Real’s best defender could be seen as the only meaningful difference between the teams over 390 minutes of play. While Real Madrid couldn’t argue to have been better than Barcelona, they were within striking distance for the first time in three seasons: a worthy rival.

After December’s 3-1 Primera Division defeat, Mourinho needs to find another adjustment. For the third time in as many years, he’ll have to devise a new plan for derailing Barcelona. With rumors from Spain hinting that Real Madrid is toying with a 3-4-3 formation, it seems he is, and it would be a mistake to assume the plan is destined to fail because his adversary is the all-world Catalan. Mourinho’s career, the talent in his squad, and his recent (if relative) success against Barcelona show he’s capable of coming up with another way to derail his former employers.

Even if this Barcelona team goes down as the best of all-time, Mourinho will still be judged on his ability to lead Real Madrid past them. He won’t be forgiven by the masses if he comes up short. That standard may be as unfair as asking Ronaldo to be Messi, yet those are undeniably the stakes; stakes icons accept when they elect to enter this fray.

While nothing can completely take away the myriad of accomplishments racked up by the likes of Ronaldo and Mourinho, failures in the Clasico can obscure them. They can obscure them in the same way that the last two years’ results have put an end to the Messi-Ronaldo debate.