Mourinho prepares Barca battleground

Master tactician has the upper hand over rivals Barcelona ahead of Champions League first-leg semifinal.

    Mourinho carries the advantage of a draw and Cup win in his last two encounters with Barca coach Guardiola [EPA]

    It's the business end of the European football season as the first leg of the European Champions League semifinals takes place this week.

    On Tuesday, Manchester United visit Schalke 04, and on Wednesday in the third of four clashes in 18 days, Real Madrid host Barcelona in an all-Spanish semifinal.

    Jose Mourinho's Real have the psychological edge, having beaten a Pep Guardiola-coached Barcelona side for the first time to earn their first domestic cup in 18 years, the Copa del Rey, last week.

    The final went down to the wire with a header from Ronaldo giving Real an extra-time victory. But the pressure is on for Mourinho to repeat last year's achievement when his Inter Milan knocked out the Catalans to reach the Champions League final, which they went on to win.

    The question is, can Mourinho steer the power-shift in Spanish football away from Catalunya and back to Madrid or are Guardiola's Barcelona too strong?

    Lucky three

    The King's Cup was Jose Mourinho's first trophy as Madrid manager and now the Portuguese coach has his eye on delivering a 10th European Cup to Real as he bids to become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs.

    The Portuguese coach is no stranger to playing against Barca, where he spent some of his formative years as an assistant to Bobby Robson in the 1990s. Mourinho also met Barca three times during his spell at English side Chelsea, twice bettering them over a 'two-match series'.

    His ability to rile the Catalan team knows no end and he has outwitted them so far in the 'four-match series' between the world's two richest and highest-profile clubs.

    Mourinho was humiliated in a 5-0 drubbing by Barcelona in the league back in November, but Real are now on the up with a recent 1-1 league home draw against Barca followed by the Cup win.

    "We can take them on over two games; we have just done that," said Mourinho.


    Tuesday April 26

     Schalke 04 v Man Utd

    Wednesday April 27

     Real Madrid v Barcelona

    Tuesday May 3

     Barcelona v Real Madrid

    Wednesday May 4

     Man Utd v Schalke 04

    "There is no reason we can't beat them in the Champions League because we have just drawn once against them and then beaten them."

    History is on Madrid's side with Real getting the better of Barcelona in their two previous semifinal meetings in the 1960 European Cup and most recently the last four of the 2002 Champions League with Real going on to be crowned champions on both occasions.

    Barcelona have reached the Champions League semifinals for four successive seasons and coach Pep Guardiola will hope to fare better than last season when he was outfoxed by Mourinho's Inter Milan.

    Eyes on the prize

    The Primera Division league title is all but wrapped up for Barcelona after a 2-0 win against Osasuna on Saturday put them eight points clear at the top of the table, but the real prize is European glory.

    Barca defender Gerard Pique refused to be drawn on the hot topics of debate after the first two 'Clasicos' such as the quality of the refereeing, the length of the grass at the Bernabeu and Real's aggressive, 'negative' approach.

    "The grass is long but I'm not going to cry about it," the Spanish World Cup winner told daily El Pais of the pitch at Wednesday's Bernabeu venue.

    "It's normal for them to take particular care over their defence and that they try to stop our passing game. Mourinho will use everything available to him.

    "At the end of the day they are a powerful team with very good forwards," added Pique.

    Messi form

    Lionel Messi notched his 50th goal of the season in the Osasuna win and has scored on each of his last three visits to the Bernabeu.

    Probable teams

    Real Madrid

    1-Iker Casillas
    17-Alvaro Arbeloa
    4-Sergio Ramos
    18-Raul Albiol
    10-Lassana Diarra
    14-Xabi Alonso
    22-Angel Di Maria
    9-Cristiano Ronaldo
    23-Mesut Ozil


    1-Victor Valdes
    2-Dani Alves
    14-Javier Mascherano
    3-Gerard Pique
    5-Carles Puyol
    8-Andres Iniesta
    16-Sergio Busquets
    10-Lionel Messi
    7-David Villa

    The form of Messi and David Villa's goal at the weekend, ending an 11-game drought in all competitions, is a boon for Barca but an injury to Brazilian Adriano is their latest defensive concern.

    Full back Adriano could miss the rest of the season with a thigh injury so Guardiola is stretched at the back with captain Carles Puyol struggling with muscular problems and Frenchman Eric Abidal recovering from surgery on a liver tumour.

    Real have packed the centre of the pitch with three holding players led by centre-back turned midfield-enforcer Pepe, denying Barca's playmakers time and space while looking to break quickly.

    Sami Khedira's injury means Lassana Diarra will probably replace him in midfield while Mourinho may opt to play without a recognised number nine again as he did in the King's Cup final.

    At the back Ricardo Carvalho is suspended. Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain and Brazilian playmaker Kaka are back to their best after long lay-offs.

    Higuain scored a hat-trick and Kaka grabbed a brace in Real's 6-3 win at Valencia on Saturday to throw their hats into the ring for a starting place against Barca.

    "He (Kaka) had a fantastic game in a position I like a lot," said Mourinho.

    "It is fantastic for his confidence."

    The two clubs are the competition's top scorers with 24 goals each but the previous two 'Clasicos' have been tense tussles with few sights of goal.

    Any change in Barca's standard 4-3-3 formation would probably be read as an acknowledgement that Real have worked out the way to play against Guardiola's three magicians - Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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