Jose Mourinho's side edged closer to the Spanish title after a deserved win in El Clásico
Fantasy football, anyone? OK, me first, here's an imaginary end to the 2011/12 season. It's the Champions League final. Real Madrid versus Barcelona. Jose Mourinho is walking across the lush turf of the Allianz Arena, Munich, one hand in his pocket, the other jangling his car keys with a studied insouciance. He is calmly whistling. All around him is bedlam. Real have just won their tenth European Cup. The final score: 0-0 after extra time, 1-0 on penalties, Madrid down to eight men, Cristiano Ronaldo ending the game in goal. (The decisive spot kick? Lionel Messi tried a Panenka, since you ask, but Ronaldo scorpion-kicked it away.) Anyway, there's Jose, hovering beatifically over the grass. A smile plays across his lips. Contentment at bringing happiness to madridistas everywhere? Pride at becoming only the second man, after Bob Paisley, to win three European Cups? Joy at becoming the first chap to win the thing with three different clubs? No, nope, and of course not: he's simply imagining lovers of the Beautiful Game worldwide, exploding into impotent atomic apoplexy at the sick beauty of his achievement: 0-0 after extra time, 1-0 on penalties, Madrid down to eight men, Cristiano Ronaldo ending the game in goal. Jose continues to amble about the pitch. He wanders up to the Barca bench. His hand lightly, sensually tugs at his zip and... actually, I'd better stop this fantasy now.
Having said all that, there's no point calling me out for brazen pro-Madrid bias. I'd be just as happy to see Barcelona win said game 7-3, Ronaldo scoring a late consolation hat-trick, paradoxically making the result about a hundred times worse for Real. I'm really not fussy. I'm anyone's.
Point I'm laboriously making is, until a few days ago, unless you're a fan of Chelsea or Bayern Munich, most fans were dreaming dreamy dreams of how a showpiece Champions League final between the two best teams in Europe would pan out. But suddenly, with Chelsea and Bayern both doing a number on the Spanish duo, that showpiece looks, if not quite yet a pipe dream, then at least far from a given. Suddenly, tonight's clásico could be the last clásico of the season, a state of affairs few had contemplated until Tuesday or Wednesday. With possible Champions League exits hanging over both clubs like large scribbly cartoon black rainclouds, this game becomes even more vital. Doesn't it? Yes. Yes it does.
Clásicos are always huge, but this clásico is huge. Barcelona are looking to win a fourth successive title, nudging into Dream Team territory. Real Madrid, meantime, are desperate to break the sequence. Mourinho, not certain to be at the Bernabeu next season, is doubly desperate to add the Spanish league to his CV. Winning leagues is what he does. They'll still be in the driving seat if they lose at Camp Nou tonight - but they'll have seen their ten-point lead cut down to a solitary one. The knees will be knocking. A Barca victory, and they'll be favourites to retain their crown.
This match also promises goals, goals, goals. These two sides really have been rattling them in. A lot. Here's Sid Lowe with the shocking stats.
And finally, let's not forget, there's an above-average chance of a preposterously childish fistfight, or some touchline-based nonsense with Mourinho at the epicentre of the nuclear blast. Let's be honest with ourselves, if everyone starts throwing hands, we'll all have big idiotic grins on our faces. Let's just be honest.
So, in summary: ¡It is on!
Lionel Messi (one goal every 72 minutes this season) v Cristiano Ronaldo (one goal every 81 minutes) kicks off at: 7pm BST, 8pm CEST.
Barcelona (0-10-0): Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Xavi, Busquets, Thiago, Tello, Messi, Iniesta.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas, Coentrao, Ramos, Pepe, Arbeloa, Khedira, Alonso, Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria, Benzema.
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco.
Oh, and in case you've forgotten what happened in the league last time... here's what happened last time.
Needless to say, there is a fantastic atmosphere at Camp Nou. The teams line up in the tunnel. Sergio Ramos ostentatiously hugs Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol. All good pals. Let's see how long that lasts. The teams take to the pitch, Barcelona in
Basel's their trademark blue and red, Real in their all white. This stadium is jumping. ¡It is on!
¡And we're off! Real get the ball rolling, to the odd whistle or two.
21 seconds: No goals yet.
59 seconds: The first free kick of the evening, Di Maria sliding in late on Thiago. It is unlikely to be the last.
3 min: All a bit scrappy at the moment. Real look as though they're going to attack hell for leather whenever they get the ball - Benzema and Ozil have both attempted to busily burst into the Barca half, only to be stopped in their tracks immediately - though the home side are enjoying more possession.
5 min: Ronaldo wins the first corner of the game down the left. The ball's floated in by Ozil, and met by Ronaldo ten yards out. He aims a looping header towards the top-right corner, and it's going in, with the help of a deflection off Puyol, but Valdes arcs his back and tips over. From the second corner, this time from the right, Pepe heads behind high and wide. A decent start by Real, this.
6 min: Pepe, in the middle of his half, slides a loose pass wide left to Ramos. Alves nicks in ahead, and springs clear down the inside-right channel. His touch in taking it off Ramos's toe is a bit too heavy, allowing Casillas to slide out and block at the edge of the area. A brilliant save at Alves's feet, because if Casillas mistimed that, he'd have upended the defender, given away a penalty, been sent off, and started the Third World War.
9 min: After their strong start, Real are suddenly finding it difficult to get hold of the ball. Barca being Barca. Ramos slides in on Alves, causing the Barca man to wag his finger furiously in the referee's face. He clearly wants the Real defender booked, but the ref isn't having a bar of it.
11 min: The middle of the park turns into a babyfoot table, or a Premier League pitch, for 30 seconds or so. A lot of hectic nonsense. Suddenly, a long ball by Real releases Benzema down the inside-right channel. Benzema cuts inside and zips a low fizzer towards the bottom left. Valdes is behind it all the way.
13 min: A free kick for Barca, 35 yards out, just to the right of the Real area. Messi hits what must be the worst set piece of his career, straight into the face of the first man. One for the purists. "I am unable to reproduce the Spanish-style exclamation mark due to my device's - sorry, my own - limitations," writes Mac Millings. "It won't let me do strikethrough either. That's all I have to report. Just thought you might need something staggeringly dull to balance out the sheer Clasico (no italics or accents, either) excitement. You're welcome." He's good, Millings, isn't he? Always worth a read.
14 min: Xavi slips Tello free down the inside-left channel. Tello cuts inside, into the area, drops a shoulder past Arbeloa, and looks straight into Casillas's eyes. He shoots low. The goalie wins. Alves picks up the loose ball, and hammers it into the net, but it's no use: Tello was a yard offside. Otherwise, full marks.
15 min: Busquets is booked for a clip on the ankles of Ronaldo. And from the free kick, swung into the area from the left wing, a corner on the right. And from that...
16 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid. Alonso swings the corner to the far post. Pepe rises, and sends a header straight at Valdes. It's half-decent, but nothing more. The keeper goes low to smother, but mishandles, and Khedira slides in ahead of the confused Puyol, who is spinning around like a teenager full of Special Brew, to force the ball home. The silence is deafening. As is the defiant roar from the home faithful that follows. This is on. This is really on.
19 min: Barcelona tend not to take this sort of thing lying down. Ping ping, ping ping, passity passity ping. They prompt down both wings, getting nowhere. Tello has a swipe from distance, but drags his shot wide left.
21 min: A clever flick from Benzema gives Ronaldo a yard in the left-hand half of the Barca box. He fires a ludicrously hard shot across the face of goal, and not miles away from the bottom-right corner. Barcelona look pretty shaky at the back.
23 min: Iniesta is this close to breaking into the box down the inside-left channel, but the pass from Xavi hits the back of his boot. Ramos steps in, making out he's timed an interception like Franz Beckenbauer, and swans off with a Kaiseresque swish.
26 min: "As a Madrid fan I am very unhappy to see Coentrao anywhere but in the stands," writes Gene Salorio. "But even happier to actually be watching a football game rather than a mixed martial arts fiasco (keeps thumbs crossed)." Give it time, Gene, give it time. Oh look, here's Alonso flipping Alves into the air like a fried egg. The referee is claiming there's not much contact. And he'd be right. No card.
27 min: It should be 1-1. Messi cuts inside from the right, and draws four men. All of whom are taken out of the equation with a clever reverse pass down the inside-right channel to release Xavi. The midfield genius should score, but his poke towards the bottom left corner is just wide of the goal. Barcelona should get the corner - Casillas, rushing out, appears to have got a small touch to that - but they don't. Either way, that has to go down as a miss; Xavi should have buried it.
30 min: Real stroke it around Barca style for a minute or so. A lot of whistling accompanies this. Ronaldo nearly breaks clear down the left, but can't bring down a long crossfield pass. Real work it back to their defenders. Pepe hoofs it upfield like a clown with big flappy shoes. A poor end to a decent passage of play from the away side. "Ray Hudson's commentary on Gol TV is already displaying his excitable homoeroticism of Spanish football," reports Justin Kavanagh. " 'He came out there like a fireman to the rescue with his big hose!' Oh dear, it's going to be a long night." I wonder what he'd make of my fantasy preamble, with Jose working away on his zipper like the protagonist from a Prince album track?
31 min: Ronaldo cuts inside from the left and looks for the top-right corner. He's about 35 yards out. Come on. The ball flies miles wide.
34 min: Iniesta tries to burst down the left, but he is totally owned by Arbeloa, who bustles him off the ball then refuses to let him pass. The crowd are getting frustrated. Chelsea will be loving this. "I have a dream too," writes Simon McMahon. "Having just returned from Perth today having watched the world famous Dundee United FC move 3 points closer to a Champions League qualifying spot with a convincing 2-0 win, I've already downloaded the Champions League music (Handel so I'm told) in anticipation of us improving upon our 100% record against Barca in European competition - if you can in fact improve on a 100% record? Played 4 won 4 since you ask." Indeed. A wee mention of it in this Joy of Six.
37 min: A lot of Barca passing, but they're going absolutely nowhere. They're becoming a rich man's Arsenal.
38 min: Pass. Pass. Pass. Shot unleashed in frustration. It's by Thiago, and it's dragged miles wide left. The crowd whistle. "Is it just me, or doesn't Iker Casillas look like the pool cleaner in an 80s porn movie?" asks a sweaty Hubert O'Hearn. "What? Oh. It is just me. Sorry." No need to apologise, we're all allowed our fantasies. As fruity as you like, no need for self-editing, I don't think anybody's reading. It's Saturday night. The usual MBM crowd are out at the theatre, I think. Apart from Millings, of course.
41 min: It's all Barcelona in terms of possession, but they're simply not clicking. The ball's shifted in from the left. Xavi, on the edge of the area, slides the ball out wide right to Alves, who sidefoots a first-time low cross into the middle for Messi. He's clear, but his shot is parried by Casillas, and he's offside anyway. A wee bit better, but this is far from classic Barcelona. Meanwhile, right on cue, here's Millings: "Against advice, I have decided to take your comment on my 13th-minute missive at face value. Always worth a read, eh? How very kind. I had to type that quote out, by the way, as my device won't copy-and-paste. Oh, and I've also decided to prove your above-quoted comment wrong in just one email."
43 min: The most predictable event of the evening occurs as Pepe is booked. He picks this one up for a pointless shoulder charge on Busquets.
44 min: Ozil is sprung free down the right wing. He beats Thiago to enter the area, but as he looks to cross low for Benzema and Ronaldo, who are both free in the centre, Mascherano blocks brilliantly. What a well-timed challenge, in more ways than one: Barca can't afford to go two goals down.
HALF TIME: Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid. Well, well, well. Not much of a match, in truth, but Madrid deserve their lead. Barcelona are moaning at the referee as they leave the pitch, about what I have no idea. Messi has got a proper face on. If they play like that in the second half, Real will have taken a huge step to the title. If they play like that on Wednesday, Chelsea can book themselves a hotel in Munich. Meanwhile, loads of water is falling from the sky onto the pitch. Either it's raining, or the Barca groundstaff are throwing one of their famous sulks, and have switched the sprinklers on, a la that semi against Jose's Inter.
HALF-TIME ENTERTAINMENT: Here's Barca in happier times, giving Real a good shoeing in 1960...
And here's them beating Wolves 4-0 in the same year. Nobody was safe!
And we're off again! Barcelona have had 78% possession, but not a single shot on target, so we're told. I'm not sure about the second half of that stat, but either way, Barca haven't been up to much. They get the second half underway, no changes having been made. "If we're going with players on the pitch who look like adult entertainers," writes Lauren, penning one of the more promising openings to an email we've had in quite a while, "the only way i can get right with Fabio Coentrao's horrific bleach job is to imagine he works at some down-market strip joint called Malibu Dreams or Splash or something." Hoy! I'm going to Malibu Dreams after I've finished this report. (That's the name of the bar downstairs in Guardian Towers. Alan Rusbridger plays jazz piano there sometimes, Polly Toynbee on vibes. Rob Smyth pole-dances. OK, no it's not. No they don't. But just imagine!)
47 min: Alonso, coming in from the side, whips the ball off Messi's feet. It's a brilliant tackle, especially in the driving rain, and it's rewarded with a yellow card. Alonso has a right face on as a result, and no wonder. "How do you think Dani Alves copes with the pain of getting his entire body tattooed, when it takes him 20 rolls and two minutes to get up from the merest touch?" asks riddlin' Rob Smith. And it's a question that requires no answer. The best sort.
49 min: Iniesta is robbed by Di Maria, who races off down the right. That was proper pickpocketin' brilliance. Unfortunately, Di Maria decides to perform a triple salchow with pike, before sliding along the greasy turf on his nipples. All the fun of the fair, but totally pointless, even though he wins an unfair free kick. Performed just inside the Barca half, it's got him absolutely nowhere. The Barca defence were backpedalling furiously there. What an odd situation to spurn.
52 min: Barcelona are looking frustrated already. Tello, on the left-hand corner of the Real box, decides to goal for goal. His wild swipe is miles left and high. "As a Chelsea fan, should I be rooting for Barca to lose?" panics Robert McDonald. "I'd love them to be demoralised coming in to next week's match, but I also fear that they may want quick revenge after two successive defeats."
53 min: Benzema slides a pass straight down the middle to release Ronaldo, who rounds Valdes on the left before rolling the ball into the empty net. The Barcelona defence were all over the shop there - but fortunately for them, Ronaldo was a wee bit eager with his run, and he's a touch offside. "My God, Barca have a frail defense," begins Ashwini Dubey, first with 2009's news. "If Puyol were to be injured they'd be leaking goals like a thatchy hut in the monsoons. And they're talking about van Persie and Bale in the summer."
55 min: This is better from Barca. Thiago sidefoots a diagonal ball along the turf, from the centre of the park to Tello, free down the inside-left channel. It's sliderule brilliance, but Tello opts to guide the ball towards the top right with a first-time shot. And it's not a very good one. "Surely, win or lose, Mourinho's greatest achievement is remaining likeable despite his cartoonish supervillainy," is Alex Hanton's brave gambit. "I reckon its because in some weird way he embodies the last stage of our childhood. Sure there is a point at which we all reckon we could be the next Maradona but eventually we have to recognize that, like Mourinho, professional football is beyond us but I guarantee there isn't a man out there regardless of age who doesn't secretly reckon he could manage his team to the title. We're all living vicariously through Jose."
56 min: After a slightly shaky start to the half, Barcelona are now getting on top here. Real can't keep hold of the ball. It doesn't quite Keep Coming Back At Them, because Barcelona faff around so much in the middle. But still, they can't keep on like this for too long, you wouldn't have thought. "I'm still here," writes the persistent Mac Millings, "typing with one hand while holding the baby. Fans of euphemisms will be disappointed to hear that wasn't one. Fans of comfortable mental images, on the other hand, will be relieved."
57 min: Pepe is shouldercharged to the floor by the Man Mountain Lionel Messi. He rolls around like he's just been hit by every golf club in Bubba Watson's bag, by Bubba Watson, systematically, from the wedges up. What a pathetic display.
59 min: Messi, floating around like a hummingbird on the right, buzzes infield and tries a low shot. It's blocked with ease by a Madrid boot. Casillas really hasn't had a whole lot to do.
62 min: Messi tries to get things going by picking up the pace in the middle of the park, exchanging passes with Iniesta as he advances towards the box, and then clattering into Ramos on the edge of the area. Ramos takes the opportunity to roll around awhile, eating up a few precious seconds. Already with the timewasting mindset. But can you blame them? "You do realise you just used the phrases 'Rob Smyth pole-dances' and 'just imagine!' in close proximity?" jabbers an understandably flustered Phil Sawyer. "As if my dreams aren't bad enough. Although at least that one might finally rid my sleeping mind of the one where I'm trying to email the OBO on a keyboard who's keys keep coming off while Millings cackles derisively over my shoulder. Sometimes I'm naked in that dream. There, now you'll have bad dreams too."
64 min: Benzema cuts inside from the right, with the Barcelona defence backtracking, all out of shape. He's got Ozil steaming down the middle, waiting to be freed by a pass, but Thiago slides in superbly to block the ball towards Mascherano instead. "How would Bale fit into the Barca style of play?" wonders Jijin John. "Or he is supposed to be a plan B? They bought in Ibrahimovich, refused to modify their game even a little it to accomodate him and then branded him a failure even though he scored around 20 goals that season in a new country. No wonder he doesn't think well of Pep. Do they expect Bale to play like Alves? More pertinently, do you think Bale is that good?"
66 min: Benzema streams down the right. Again he's got Ozil in the centre, with only one blue-and-red shirt back. A properly timed pass, and Ozil is free. Again, Benzema can't find his man, this time undercooking the ball inside. Another chance goes begging. Real Madrid can't afford to keep spurning opportunities like this. Then again, Barcelona can't afford to keep offering them up.
68 min: Coentrao catches the ball square in the face, and goes down, dazed, for a minute or two. I hope he's OK for his shift at Malibu Dreams!
69 min: Xavi, coming in from the right, fizzes a low, gently oscillating shot inches wide left of goal. A fine effort, and a rare pop at goal from Barca. It's his last contribution, as he's replaced by Sanchez.
70 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid. A ludicrous session of pinball in the Real area. Messi starts it off with a flick out left to Tello, who shoots. Casillas parries. The ball comes back out to Busquets, on the edge of the area to the left of goal. The shot's deflected, and falls to Sanchez, six yards out. Casillas somehow slides back to spoon the ball away from the line, but it only rebounds to Sanchez, who prods home. Camp Nou erupts! What a supersub.
73 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid. Well, what a response by Real Madrid! Ozil picks up the ball near the halfway line down the right. He hits a first-time pass inside, releasing Ronaldo down the inside-right channel. Ronaldo takes a touch forward at high pace, draws Valdes, goes round the keeper on the right, and clips the ball into the empty net. Wow! Two minutes and 19 seconds elapsed between the equaliser and what could be the killer blow in the title race!
76 min: Well. A couple of changes in response. Granero replaces Di Mario for Real, while for the home side, Pedro arrives in Adriano's stead. "If the Barca bubble is to burst, does it have to be Real Madrid and Chelsea that do it?" sighs Gary Naylor.
77 min: Ozil is booked for timewasting at a corner, won by Real down the right. Alves should have joined him in the book 30 seconds earlier, for raking his studs into Ronaldo as the two tangled down the left touchline. Nothing comes from the corner.
78 min: This is turning into a scrap now. Granero is booked for a rugby tackle on Messi.
79 min: Corner for Barca now. And this one is wasted too. It's like the Premier League, only with better tax breaks.
81 min: Fabregas comes on for Tello. If his finishing is anything like it was on Tuesday night at Stamford Bridge, Real Madrid might as well get the cigars on, and pour themselves a few balls of brandy.
83 min: Real stream forward, four on three. It's a chance to put this game to bed. But Benzema, with unmarked team-mates to his left and right, opts to shoot from 25 yards. Valdes is behind it all the way. "The verve, poise, balance, grace, confidence, beauty, imagination, and pure brilliance of CR9's wonderfully taken roll on the floor after being lightly brushed in a natural and coincidental way by Alves' ankle was a sight to behold, and I don't think should be overlooked - a brilliant contribution to the world," opines Peter Crosby. "Not one, two, three or four but about twelve side-to-side-rolls - a rare skill and the feat of man at the height of his power."
85 min: Mascherano takes a shot from 35 yards. If ever there's an entry that doesn't need to be finished, there it is.
86 min: Ronaldo skips down the left, only to be flipped into the air by Mascherano, whose sliding tackles are at least a wee bit more accurate than his shots.
88 min: Real are keeping Barcelona pressed back in their own box. A corner sent in from either side. This is as ice-cool and professional as it gets. "Balls of Brandy sounds like a film that Chuck Norris really should have made," says Phil Sawyer, the Irving Thalberg de nos jours.
89 min: Ozil is replaced by Callejon.
90 min: There will be four added minutes. "Would the venerable Gary Naylor prefer to see Everton inflict tiki-taka's death stroke?" wonders Matt Dony. Behave, Matt, they can't even deal with Andy Carroll when he's facing the wrong way.
90 min +1: Messi - who has been as quiet as a small animal tonight - has a row with Arbeloa over bugger all. Barcelona have won a corner, though, but Puyol is penalised for the lightest of nudges on Ramos.
90 min +2: Granero dances about for a bit. Barcelona can't get hold of the ball.
90 min +3: Arbeloa buys a free kick by diddling around down the inside-right channel. Higuain replaces Benzema.
90 min +4: Ronaldo blasts a free kick miles into the stand. Valdes takes a goal kick. The ball comes straight back at Madrid down the right. Ronaldo sidefoots the resulting cross over from about one inch out.
FULL TIME: Barcelona 1-2 Real Madrid. And that's it! Surely that's the title for Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid now. And what a fillip it gives Chelsea ahead of their Champions League visit! "Tonight's been another one of those nights showing why the constant hammering on about possession stats over the course of this Barcelona team's lifespan has been so misguided," concludes Jaker Ahmed. "As per against Chelsea, it's not how much of the ball you have that truly matters, it's what you do with it. Chelsea and Madrid have shown that. Barcelona look tired after three years of sustained excellence." So: are Barcelona over? Are they really over? I suppose we'll know by the middle of next week...