Monday, April 25, 2011

Copa del Rey provides Real Madrid's "Predator" moment

To the Madridista, last week's Copa del Rey win wasn't just tacit validation of Florentino Perez's updated Galacticos - version 2.0 - but also proof that this may well have been Jose Mourinho's Predator moment: the instant a challenging club doesn't just reason instinctively that the champ is vulnerable, but has sees and, crucially, believes they can exploit that weakness.

The expression was popularised in Australia in 2001, when the coach of the AFL's Brisbane Lions, Leigh Matthews, announced of a seemingly indomitable Essendon "If it bleeds, we can kill it". In doing so, he echoed Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic phrase from the 1987 Action extravaganza Predator and his comments were lapped up by thirsty national media outlets desperate for another angle on the brutal Bombers. Last week in the Copa, Los Merengues not only discovered for themselves that Barcelona were a team of humans but also, that they had themselves several advantages over the Catalans.

While Real did not dominate the game, neither did Barca. Given Mourinho's success last year in negating the Catalans with Champions' League winners Inter Milan and his setup for their 5-0 thrashing at the Camp Nou earlier this season, Los Merengues were hardly likely to try and beat Barca at their own game. Both enjoyed periods of dominance in the archetypal "Game of Two Halves" and perhaps the greatest obvious difference between the two was up front, where a misfiring David Villa was overshadowed by flashes of brilliance from Real pair Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo.

And it's not just that Villa is still to score in eleven matches where Barcelona should be concerned. Their bench had no further attacking substitutes, with only recent signing Ibrahim Afellay and youngster Thiago Alcantara able to reinforce the offence. That pair sat alongside defence stalwarts Puyol, Maxwell, Valdes and Milito. In contrast, Real Madrid could have brought on any of Emanuel Adebayor, Kaka, Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. As irresistable as Barcelona has been for nigh-on three years, there are definite cracks in their pristine veneer. If any manager is capable of revealing them so apparently, it would surely be Jose Mourinho.

That's not to say that all is lost for the Catalans. Rather than opting for one of his central defenders, Pep Guardiola opted to use midfielder Javier Mascherano at centre-back who was often overwhelmed in the air by both Cristiano Ronaldo and Adebayor; the latter so impressive during his cameo appearance that it must make both Roberto Mancini and his dutiful Man City fans feel thoroughly used. Also worth considering is that neither the inspirational Puyol, sprite-like Bojan nor the inadjectivable Jeffren played for Barcelona. With their style of football and the players at their disposal (and there's good reason to think that in Iniesta, Xavi and Messi they boast three of the top four players in the world - if not the best three) their game is hardly likely to drop over the next few years. Xavi is the oldest of that trio at the grand old age of 31.

Now having played their nemeses three times this season, Mourinho's men sport a record of 1-1-1 against the men from Catalonia. With each increasing match, their results have improved: a 5-0 thrashing away in La Liga during November, a draw in the first of four consecutive Clasicos last week again in La Liga, and now a win in the Cup, albeit in added time. It could be that with those most vital matches approaching - their Champions' League Semi-Final - Mourinho's men have fostered enough self-belief to unseat the club many rush to call Best Ever.

With the third of four Clasicos due on Wednesday, Mourinho's match preparation should include playing his men a worn-out VHS copy of Predator. They believe it now - Barcelona can be beaten. Whether Barcelona fall into the same traps, depends on if they learn faster than a superintelligent, totally camouflaged alien killing machine. The bet here is they will - meaning another fantastic match on Wednesday.

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