Barca’s 2-0 loss to Hercules in the second week of the season was shocking and can probably now be written off as one of those one-off horror shows. A run of six straight victories, including an amazing 8-0 success at Almeria has had the effect of restoring the world to something like its natural order. A record of 10-1-1 and a +25 goal difference after 12 games would normally be considered fair enough for Pep Guardiola and company, and would almost always be enough to claim top spot in the standings. The caveat this season has been the re-emergence of the white shirts of Madrid as not only a worldwide name, but a bloody good team also.
Jose Mourinho has clearly shown a flexibility in approach to get what has been an impressive start from a set of players who chronically under-achieved in what is best referred to as their Harlem Globetrotter years. With the emphasis on star attraction and marketability rather than straightforward team-building, there was a sense that focus at the Bernabeu was not entirely on the job in hand. As they watched Barca cleaning up and their own side slip out of most people’s top 10 sides in Europe, it was time for a change. And change does not come much more emphatically than in the form of the Special One. He promised togetherness, a more team-orientated approach, and some of the qualities that had been evident in his teams at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. However, he also found himself at a club who expect to play football with a certain style and a degree of panache. In fact, with that in mind, this writer never believed the rumours about his move to Madrid until it became official. That he has implemented his changes while getting the best out of players like Cristiano Ronaldo is a evidence that he is indeed a superb man-manager as well as an astute tactician. Two six-goal hauls, a five and a four are indeed a fine effort and 10-2-0 +27 is the form of a team who know exactly what they are doing, and fear no-one.
If Real can pull off a victory in this game, it marks the end of a chapter in European football’s recent history and would open up a four point gap. Barca will be sure to come out looking for the knockout, and the Nou Camp support will no doubt be aiming to intimidate those in white into freezing on the ultimate occasion. This will probably come down to whose big-game players produce the best individual performances, but with the sides so evenly matched and Mourinho in the position of seeing a draw as a positive result, do not be surprised to see the proverbial bus parked in front of the visiting goal for an immensely valuable 0-0 draw.