Real Madrid vs. Barcelona Is the Dream Champions League Final
When Ruud van Nistelrooy drew Barcelona out of the pot to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal, I have to admit I let out a whoop of delight that slightly startled my seven-year-old son.
This had nothing to do with this semifinal itself, but everything to do with the fact that it safeguards Barcelona meeting Real Madrid in the Champions League final at Wembley.
An El Clasico to decide the champions of Europe played at the world’s most historic football stadium is an incredibly exciting prospect.
Beyond the obvious political and cultural rivalry between Spain’s two biggest sides, this potential Champions League final overflows with compelling subplots.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s two greatest players, will never have played in a game with so much at stake. It is entirely feasible the final could decide the winner of the Ballon d’Or later in the year as well.
Ronaldo will not have forgotten how anonymous he was when Manchester United lost to a rampant Barcelona and Messi in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome.
Then there is Real Madrid’s pursuit of their 10th European Cup, which has consumed the club for the last 11 years.
This could also be Jose Mourinho's final match as Real Madrid manager, and he could not have arranged a better leaving party for himself than beating Barcelona in the Champions League final.
If Mourinho does this, he would become the first manager to win the European Cup with three different sides, after Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010, and also draw level with Liverpool's Bob Paisley as the only manager to win the trophy three times.
At the moment Mourinho and Real Madrid will be confident of realising these ambitions if they were to meet Barcelona at the end of May.
Though Real Madrid have staged a feeble defence of their La Liga title this year and currently sit 13 points behind Barcelona, they have mastered the art of playing against their old foes.
After arriving at Real Madrid, Mourinho won only two of his first 11 El Clasicos, but this season he is unbeaten in his last five games against Barcelona.
After losing the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup 3-2 earlier this year, Madrid won the return 2-1 at the Bernabeu to win the trophy on away goals.
In La Liga this season Madrid have drawn 2-2 and won 2-1, while they also triumphed over Barcelona 3-1 and 1-1 in the two legs of their Spanish Cup semifinals.
Though the gap in La Liga appears daunting, Real Madrid have proved this Barcelona side are far from invincible.
As Real Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka noted to the press earlier this year, “Now the team is much more confident and calm [against Barcelona] and that translates into results.”
Since they fell behind in the table, winning the Champions League has become Real Madrid’s main focus. After six seasons without winning a knockout tie in the tournament, they have now won two in the last month against Manchester United and Galatasaray.
But first Madrid have to get past Borussia Dortmund, which they failed to do in the group stages earlier this season, where they lost 2-1 and drew 2-2 with the German champions.
The other concern for Madrid is that they have conceded 14 goals in the Champions League this season, more than any of the other semifinalists.
And though they have enjoyed the better of games against Barcelona, like the rest of Europe they have rarely managed to nullify the threat of Lionel Messi, who has scored five goals against them this season.
But this is exactly what would make a final between Real Madrid and Barcelona such a spectacle: There would be goals.
Too often Champions League finals can be cagey and defensive affairs, but in their six games this season Barcelona and Real Madrid have together produced 21 goals.
Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are both fine teams, but football romantics will hope Real Madrid and Barcelona both triumph in their semifinals to set up what promises to be a brilliant final.
Follow Sam Pilger on Twitter @sampilger
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