Evening. The idea that it's possible to have too much of a good thing was surely agreed upon and created by parents in order to get their children ready for all of life's many and varied disappointments; can't have ice-cream every day of the week, put the Playstation away, because you've got homework to do and greens to eat. Of course, some of the best childhood memories stem from the random treats life throws at you, the rare occasion you stayed up late to watch a football match or when your teacher couldn't be bothered on a rainy afternoon and put a film on instead. Here are moments to cherish; special because they don't come along very often and if they did, well, it would just be another of those things you could shrug your shoulders at with tired insouciance.
The latest instalment in the Clasico series has drawn a similar reaction. Real Madrid? Barcelona? Them? Again? Two legs?! Didn't we only do this last week? Turning your nose up at this is a bit like being offered free entry to the Hawksmoor for a year and deciding to go to Wimpys instead, yet any yawns are, if not totally forgivable, understandable. Spanish football is getting dangerously close to Rangers and Celtic levels now, with Barcelona and Real Madrid totally dominant – for them, as Sid Lowe has pointed out, draws are the new defeats and for the rest, draws are the new victories. Last season, during that preposterous and ill-tempered let-down of a mini-series they met in the final – which Madrid won – and this quarter-final could effectively be seen as this year's edition. They might stand in each other's way, but no one else in Spain does. Possibly no one in Europe does, but that's an argument for another day.
This is already the fourth time Barcelona and Real Madrid have met this season (twice in the Super Cup and once in the league) and they are guaranteed to play at least two more games (the second leg of this tie and the return game in the league, both at the Camp Nou). Then there remains the possibility of them meeting in the Champions League, either in the final or over two legs. You wouldn't bet against it. Full yet?
Real have won just one of their last 12 games against Barcelona – last season's Copa del Rey final, when Cristiano Ronaldo settled it in extra-time with a thumping header. In the celebrations afterwards, Sergio Ramos dropped the trophy off the top of a double-decker bus, which then rolled over it; faced against Barcelona, their grip on the trophy looks even less secure now. Save for that match, in which Barcelona were still the better side, Jose Mourinho has not been able to get the better of Pep Guardiola. The only in the eye for Barcelona has been physical.
And yet, Real are currently five points clear at the top of La Liga. It is quite possible that Mourinho, having tried nearly every approach in his time at the Bernabeu, has realised he cannot beat this Barcelona face-to-face, so has instead opted to better them in a long-distance race, picking and choosing his battles. The evidence is clear: last season, Real played an open game against Barcelona and were beaten 5-0. They went defensive and dirty in the Champions League. They lost. In the Super Cup, they were physically superior. Leo Messi won it for Barcelona. In the league last month, Real attacked Barcelona from the off, were 1-0 up faster than you can say tiki-taka and were eventually beaten 3-1.
A fascinating consequence of this could be that Barcelona beat Real Madrid in four competitions, over the course of seven or eight games, and Real Madrid win the league, pouncing on little slips here and there from Guardiola's men. As good as Real have been this season, at no point have they even threatened to reach the heights Barcelona have scaled and Mourinho is not stupid. He knows that if Barcelona play to their potential, you could put two sides out there at once and they'd still win 99 times out of 100, because they really are too much of a good thing.
Team news: Who remembers what Hamit Altintop looks like? He's lining up at right-back, while Ricardo Carvalho is back after injury, meaning Pepe moves into his old stomping ground in midfield. Barcelona are as expected, with Pinto in goal instead of Victor Valdes.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Altintop, Ramos, Carvalho, Coentrao; Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso, Pepe; Ronaldo, Higuaín, Benzema. Subs: Adan, Marcelo, Albiol, Kaka, Ozil, Granero, Callejon.
Barcelona: Pinto; Dani Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Fábregas, Messi. Subs: Valdes, Mascherano, Thiago, Adriano, Sergi Roberto, Dos Santos, Cuenca.
A frightening statistic: Carlos Puyol has not lost any of his last 50 games for Barcelona. That's 42 wins and eight draws. He's bettered Arsenal's Invincibles all on his own.
The first email. "I wouldn't worry about getting too much of a good thing," says Robin Hazlehurst. "Wolves are playing Birmingham in the cup replay at the same time. Five minutes of that during the half time break here is like a three-week diet of sprouts and can justify you gorging on liquid chocolate football for the second half of this game." That tie has been on television twice now. I've switched over to the first Copa del Rey game, in which it is Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Mallorca.
"Why is it that Barcelona can field substantially the same XI time after time ('Barcelona are as expected'), while EPL teams are constantly changing squads from one match to the next?" says Paul Szabo. "Is it injury-related? The need (or not) to change strategy for different opponents?" Would you bother changing this team too much?
"I knew you were Steinberg without even looking because "playstation" is your frame of reference for toys that need to be put away," says Adam Nelson. "Such a young rapscallion." I don't know why I said that actually, I've never owned one. I'm using my imagination. Look at me, like a real writer!
On the Real Madrid bench: Mesut Ozil, Kaka, Callejon, Esteban Granero.
In the Real Madrid team: Lassana Diarra, Pepe and Hamit Altintop.
Conclusion: This may not be pretty. How do you say park the bus in Spanish?
Here's another stat courtesy of Infostrada. "Lionel Messi will play his 300th match for Barcelona in all competitions," writes Ernst Wark. "He has scored 213 goals including 13 in 16 El Clásicos in all competitions." The Stoke line is now banned, isn't it? You can't use it. If you do, you have to watch Wolves v Birmingham.
Although Chris Brock wouldn't mind that. "Huh," he says. "Give me a diet of sprouts over that fiddly foreign muck with garlic and eyeballs and such like any day. It's the third round of the FA Cup! In England. And a local Derby. And you're following some game in Spain. Where's your sense of patriotism? Regards (tongue firmly in cheek)." The magic of the cup reigns in Spain tonight.
"Usual Mourinho setting his stall out for a 0-0 draw at home," says Steve Waine, and seeing as I'm under no contractual obligation to make this stuff interesting, he may well be right. "Boring," he concludes.
The Sopranos is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm by the way, just in case Mourinho is putting the choke-hold on this game. I've recorded it, there'll be hell to pay if anyone in my house deletes it.
"When you win easily most weeks, you don't have to play at full pelt all game?" says Paul Chandler.
"Surely not the same Barça XI quite *all* the time?" says Charles Antaki. "They put out effectively a reserve side when playing the return leg of the Osasuna game (in the round before this one) - they still won 1-2, mind." Well yes, but they were 4-0 up already.
"So this year Barca will try to beat Real with Pinto in goal and win Champions League with three defenders & no strikers," says Roman Hosoff. "If they succeed, next year we might even see slightly bored Guardiola joining Busquets and Fabregas in midfield." And with Messi blindfolded.
"Maybe we should revise our thinking and agree that its possible to simply have too much of a thing," suggests David Flynn. "Since Jose has decided to merely kick barca off the field, the majority of recent classicos have been anything but good." Indeed - last spring's mini-series suffered because of the suffocating nature of four games in 16 days.
It's finished Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Mallorca. Cue a Real-Barca montage on Sky. Everyone needs a montage.
The park the bus dilemma is settled. "In response to your desperate cry for assistance ("How do you say park the bus in Spanish"), I sought out a linguist friend, bored of revision and eager to learn about the intricacies of el clasico," says Stephen Harrison. "She assures me that "aparcar el autobus" would suffice [tran. Hannah Wood]."
Real Madrid are in the tunnel, waiting for Barcelona.
Classic mind games from Pep Guardiola.
There's just been a very entertaining row between Michel Salgado and Guillem Balague on Sky - watch and learn, Alan Shearer. To precis, Salgado believes that Pepe is the wrong choice in midfield, especially with Ozil and Granero on the bench. "You're playing against history," blasts Balague.
The teams are out on the pitch. Real Madrid's players applaud all four corners of the Bernabeu. So do Barcelona's. What delightful guests, Real will definitely be having them back.
The second half restarts at Molineux. Richard Stearman gets it and pumps the ball up field. Barcelona start us off, kicking from left to right. The ball is immediately played back to Puyol and Pique, who stroke it about without a care in the world. "Just watching the players line up in the tunnel here on Spanish TV and I have to say that close up Xabi Alonso is one handsome fella - the side-parting; the stubble; the strong jaw line," swoons Peter Ferry. Plus he is the brains of the operation in the Madrid team. If I could be any footballer in the world it would be Alonso."
2 min: The ball is pinged over the top of the Real defence for Fabregas to chase, but it trundles out for a goal-kick. Moments later, Barcelona try the same tactic again, this time looking for Sanchez. Casillas is quick off his line to boot clear into the stands. Real have barely had a kick yet. "The problem with your 'Eating at the Hawksmoor every night' analogy is that El Clasico is like eating at the Hawksmoor while Raymond Blanc wanders in, harasses your waiter and spits in your food occasionally," says Stephen Bush. "Barcelona's best performance against Madrid in recent years, for my money, was the 6-2 in Pep's first year."
3 min: I'd wager that Casillas is the only Real player who's touched the ball so far. There's no doubt about it, they are parking the bus and looking to hit Barcelona on the counter.
4 min: Sanchez turns and looks to release Alves down the right. But look at this, there's Ronaldo haring back behind the full-back to make a superb sliding challenge. Mourinho spoke about him working like an animal yesterday; here's more proof of it.
5 min: Congratulations to Barcelona, by the way, for not conceding after 21 seconds this time. "Surely putting out the message not to delete a recorded programme is akin to the cartoon favourite "I'm just putting this pie on the window ledge to cool" when there is a hungry dog in the room," muses Phil Withall.
6 min: A high cross-field pass from left to right goes over Iniesta, who just turns and plucks it out of the sky before it goes out for a goal-kick. He is brilliant. He then tries to play Fabregas in. He's onside, but the pass is too heavy and Casillas collects. He glares at his defenders, they glare at the linesman.
8 min: It's noticeable that Real are working as hard as possible to stop Barcelona having it all their own way at the back. Ronaldo has twice closed them down deep in their own half, and Benzema has been an irritant to Pique as well.
9 min: "I still like the Stoke line," pleads Andy Waddington. "Its not so much whether they can win at Stoke - I'm sure they would win 9 out of 10. It's a question of Stoke away in mid-week and then El Clasico on Saturday lunchtime. We'd soon hear Pep asking who decides the fixtures and moaning about big-spending broadcasters. Related question, where would Wigan finish in La Liga? I doubt they'd be relegated." I'd love to see Connor Sammon playing at the Camp Nou.
GOAL! Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona (Ronaldo, 11 min): Here, Mourinho's gameplan is working. Barcelona lose the ball deep in Real's half and Benzema picks up possession near the centre circle. He immediately slides Ronaldo away down the left with a great pass, the forward one-on-one with Pique. He - of course - pulls out a couple of stepovers, advances into the area, shifts it on to his left foot and then hammers a low drive through Pinto's legs. Valdes would have saved that.
13 min: It's worth pointing out that Barcelona have gone behind in their last two visits to the Bernabeu and have come back to draw 2-2 and win 3-1. "We're baby sitting the next door neighbours daughter tonight which means I'm having to watch the FA Cup game in the kitchen while they monopolise the Sky box," says Ian Burch. "While it may not have the allure of the cup game in Spain, it does have comedy World Cup referee Howard Webb who has denied the Blues a blatant penalty. It also has Mick McCarthy looking bewildered at Ebanks-Blake inability to score from 2 yards, but that's all it has going for it mind."
14 min: Barcelona come back looking for an equaliser straight away. Iniesta diddles past Altintop on the left side of the area, cuts inside and brings a save out of Casillas at his near post. The corner comes to nothing, as you knew it would.
16 min: Sanchez hits the bar with a wonderful header. From 40 yards out, Xavi spotted his run and clipped a sublime pass over the top. It looked like there was nothing he could do with it, but he gets in between Ramos and Coentrao and loops a header over the statuesque Casillas and on to the face of the bar.
17 min: Bingo! Pepe has been booked inside 20 minutes for trodding Busquets' foot. For once, Busquets has an excuse to roll around. "For those of us in the US "eating at the Hawksmoor" these days, Ray Hudson doing the commentary on Gol TV is like having Benny Hill as your ever-excitable waiter," parps Justin Kavanagh. "With a Geordie accent."
20 min: It's starting. Both sets of players are crowding the referee after Pepe goes down after being caught by a flailing arm from Pique. There really wasn't much in that, though it was probably painful. Pique is booked to both Real's and Barcelona's fury.
22 min: Ronaldo is now getting some spray on his leg after getting a knock to the back of his knee. He'll be fine. Say what you like about Ronaldo, but he is a remarkably tough player. "Despite our differences I am sure that we can all agree that history has brought us, in a culmination of evolution and myriad transformations through recorded time, to a place where we can say, together in common humanity, that Pepe is the worst," says Jonathan Shaw.
24 min: Coentrao has to be alert to stop Fabregas breaking through after a snappy one-two with Sanchez on the edge of the area.
25 min: What an escape for Barcelona. Ronaldo really has the bit between his teeth tonight. He looks like he's trying to win over the Madrid public tonight with all his chasing and harrying, which this time leads to him racing clear down the left again. Instead of just going in a straight line, he tries to slide it to the right for Benzema, but Abidal just gets in the way.
26 min: The first sight of goal for Messi. He's sprung clear down the inside-left channel, Altintop nowhere to be seen. With Madrid all over the shop, Messi slams a low left-footer towards the near post from an angle, bring the best out of Casillas again. Real lead, but only thanks to the woodwork and some fine goalkeeping.
27 min: Messi threads an eye-of-the-needle pass from the middle through to Iniesta on the left, where Barcelona are getting some real joy. Altintop is no right-back. Real cry for offside but it's not even close, but with Fabregas all alone in the middle, Iniesta can't find him. Still, this is starting to look ominous for the hosts.
29 min: Barcelona miss another chance. It surely can't stay 1-0 for long, because they are tearing Real to shreds at the moment. A pass straight through the middle finds Sanchez in the area. He could turn and shoot, but instead lays it off perfectly to Iniesta. Astonishingly for him, his first touch takes him wide, but he should still score, only to blast high and wide from six yards out as Casillas closes him down. That is a woeful miss. On the touchline, birthday boy Pep holds his head in his hands.
32 min: Sanchez catches Pepe's standing leg, so the midfielder throws himself to the ground. What a piece of work. The whistles grow louder, but there's no card. "My guess is that Madrid will win," says Cecilia Marjakangas. "No matter. Champions League is the only one I care about as a Culé and I love all the different, weird formations and the B team players fielded for Barcelona so the trophies don't matter half as much. I'm disappointed though that Masche's not playing. He's an awesome defender and while he's not a natural centre-back, he's still faster than either Puyol or Pique and reads the game well. Oh well."
33 min: Casillas is quick off his line and out of his area, leaping through the air like an ersatz John Terry to clear with a diving header as Fabregas tried to reach yet another through-ball. Moments later, Fabregas is away again, but his curved beauty of a cross is a waste, with Messi flagged offside in the middle.
36 min: Every time Real win it back, Ronaldo has so much room on the left and they're finding him with regularity. With Dani Alves romping off down the other end, don't be surprised if Ronaldo creates another goal on the counter.
39 min: It's become a little bit scrappy these last few minutes. I wonder what's going on at Molineux.
40 min: Xavi plays a slide-rule pass through the middle for Sanchez. Coentrao is playing him onside, but the flag goes up. A bad decision, the linesman tricked by Ramos's arm going up.
41 min: It tends to get forgotten these days, but Ricardo Carvalho is an awesome defender. With Messi bursting into the area on the left after a one-two with Xavi, the Portuguese defender times his tackle to absolute perfection to prevent what was in all probability a certain equaliser.
42 min: The linesman is having a bit of a shocker, now wrongly deciding Messi was offside.
45 min: Fabregas slices a dreadful shot miles over from 30 yards out. This Barcelona front three is still not entirely convincing. For me, they miss the width that Pedro and David Villa - who is admittedly injured - gave them last season. At the moment, too much is going through the middle and with Dani Alves below-par, Real can squeeze them.
Peep! Peep! The half-time whistle blows. The last time Real Madrid led Barcelona at half time was 7 May 2008.
Half time: George Graham's Arsenal 1-0 Barcelona.
"I'm watching the game via a dubious (but completely legal) source that has led me to something called 'GolTV'," says Matt Wilde. "The commentary team is comprised of a half-drunk Georgie and his overly enthusiastic American counterpart. According to the Geordie, Barca are playing "impressively well", whilst the American has put forth such gems as, "Iniesta, checking the mirror", "Barca putting the rubik's cube together" and "Real moving within 35 yards of Barca". Does anyone know who these post-ironic geniuses are? And can anyone tell me what a "little dagger ball" is?" I've heard about him, though I've never followed a game with him obviously.
"I agree with earlier comment concerning Ray Hudson: over the course of this game he has referred to Iker Casillas as a "junglecat" and a Busquets tackle as "peanut butter on a meatbone." Dubious," says Hamish Ballantyne. The man's a maverick, let him be.
46 min: We're off again, Real getting the second half underway. There's the kick-off. Will they see the ball again? No, they keep it for all of three seconds before Benzema kicks it out for a throw. Dear me. It's almost as if Mourinho is trying to mimic his tactics with Inter in 2010.
47 min: A one-two. Messi. Fabregas. The former Arsenal man gets to the left byline and wheeches a cross back into the area, but Ramos is on hand to deal with it. If only Barcelona had Michael Owen.
GOAL! Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona (Puyol, 49 min): Forget tiki-taka, sometimes you just need a bit of bish and a bit of bosh. Iniesta wins a corner off Altintop on the left. Xavi takes it, curling it into the area and Puyol gets the run on Pepe and powers a stunning diving header low past Casillas, much like his winner for Spain in the 2010 World Cup semi-final against Germany. Stoke themselves would have been proud of that.
50 min: Ramos is booked for a nasty little swipe at Sanchez, who had completely left him for dead with a slick turn on the halfway line. It's hotting up a bit here. "In the history of over the top, say the first thing that comes into your outbox commentators who know absolutely nothing, Ray Hudson is all that and a bag of chips WITH a Geordie accent," says Gareth Holden. "I know he probably makes good money but I bet he'd make billions as a darts commentator. My only consolation is that he isn't Tommy "Bulging Onion Bag" Smyth. RMA to win 5-2 YAHOOOOO!" I don't know, I quite like him, he pushes boundaries.
53 min: The problem that Real are presented with is that they basically only have one way of scoring: on the break. That's a very random method, seeing as it essentially needs a perfect situation for it to be achieved - Barcelona losing the ball in the first place and there being enough space.
54 min: Great defending from Ramos stops Iniesta from giving Barcelona the lead. Fabregas scoops a glorious pass over the Real defence - think Scholes v Milan in 2007 - and Iniesta runs on to it, volleys towards the far corner, only for Ramos to somehow get back and deflect it on to the near post with an outstretched leg. Casillas was a mere spectator as that all unfolded.
55 min: Bingo II! Busquets is booked for stopping a free-kick being taken quickly. Peek-a-boo just can't help himself.
58 min: Now Real hit the post. This is probably the first piece of sustained pressure they have managed throughout the game, as the ball is worked out to Altintop on the right. He twists and turns, befuddling Abidal enough to hang up a cross to the far post where the unmarked Benzema heads against the outside of the post from eight yards out.
59 min: Coentrao is booked for clattering into the back of the rather quiet Messi on the right. "Ray Hudson has always been a polarizing character in the commentator's booth," says Jonathan Nebel. "Personally, I absolutely love him. Him and Phil Schoen are by far my favorite commentary crew. To each his own, I guess."
60 min: Sanchez teases his way past Coentrao on the right side of the area and then coaxes a low cross across the face of the Real goal. No one's there. It comes to Iniesta, but on the stretch, his tame volley loops away from goal and Casillas claims it easily.
64 min: Pepe is an embarrassment. A total disgrace. Fabregas muscles him off the ball on the right, brushing his arm into his chest. Pepe goes down like he's been punched in the face by Manny Pacquiao. Barcelona attack, but with Pepe rolling about, they eventually knock it out of play.
66 min: I've just realised Higuain was playing. I genuinely don't think he touched the ball once. The only reason I mention him now is because he's been replaced by Callejon. Mesut Ozil is also on for Diarra. Real are going for it now.
67 min: Hands up - did anyone see Higuain touch the ball?
68 min: Callejon's first act on the pitch is to stop Messi on full flight and gets booked. With Messi on the floor, Pepe stands on his hands. He may well have done that on purpose. Pepe does not belong on a football pitch.
69 min: What a terrible miss from Busquets. Another Xavi set-piece, this time a free-kick from the left, causes havoc in the Real area, but Busquets heads just over when it was easier to score. Guardiola puffs out his cheeks. He can hardly believe it.
71 min: Iniesta glides past four Real players - he is the best player on the pitch tonight by some distance - and then rolls it into the path of Messi, whose touch is uncharacteristically heavy, allowing Coentrao to stem the danger.
71 min: Sanchez hares through on goal and goes round Casillas, but a really tight offside decision goes in Real's favour. It was the right call. "Ok, that's it," says J.R. "Pepe is the worst."
74 min: The more I see it, the more it looks like Pepe intentionally stepped on Messi's hand. Aside from how cowardly it is, it's so dangerous - wearing studs, he could have done some genuine damage.
76 min: Altintop has - eventually - had a very good game against Iniesta, standing up well to him whenever the Barcelona genius tries to take him on. "To deal with the likes of Pepe, UEFA should introduce an additional official whose job would be to judge the quality of acting by the players," says Mark Elliott. "The official would be from the local equivalent of RADA and would be allowed to issue yellow or red cards based on the quality of the performance."
GOAL! Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona (Abidal, 77 min): Puyol scoring was strange enough, but this one is a real collector's item. Messi, who has done bugger all for the most part, shifts the ball on to his left foot and curls a magnificent pass through to Abidal, who's tiptoed forward from full-back. Forgive Real for not noticing him. The flag stays down despite their protestations, Abidal chests it down and then, with the outside of his left foot, he strokes an absurdly cool finish low past Casillas and into the bottom-right corner as if he's been doing it all his life.
79 min: Puyol is booked for dissent, claiming he should have had a foul after being outdone by Ronaldo. Possibly, but the referee, who's had an excellent game, waved play on. Nothing came from it ultimately, despite a bit of panic in the Barcelona area.
80 min: At last, Pepe is withdrawn and replaced by Esteban Granero. About time.
82 min: Alexis Sanchez is replaced by Adriano. Moments later, Benzema cuts in from the left and slashes well wide from long range. He's not done much tonight, though he's been marginally more involved than Higuain. "Is Pepe the player Mourinho might have been?" ponders Steve Peake.
83 min: Paulo Padilha points me to Wayne Rooney criticising Pepe on Twitter. Then again, he's one to talk.
85 min: "For at least a few more minutes, there's a video on YouTube of Pepe standing on Messi's hands," says David Price. "You can see at about 5sec Pepe clearly looks down to see where his feet are and then plants one of them down sharpish onto Leo's hand."
86 min: The exciting Thiago comes on for Xavi, who was as stately as ever.
87 min: This game is descending into filth now. Messi speeds away from Carvalho, who just boots him in the side of the leg. What a clown. He's booked too. This is why some people can't stand Mourinho.
89 min: Cesc Fabregas goes off, Isaac Cuenca comes on.
90 min: There will be three more minutes of this. Real have run out of ideas, not that they had too many to begin with. "In your early team news you describe Pepe as 'moving into his old stomping ground in midfield'," says Gilad McAteer. "Pity you misspelled 'on Messi's limbs' as 'in midfield'."
90 min+2: Carvalho, already on a booking, should be off. He's just scythed through Adriano on the edge of the area, bringing him down, but the referee played the advantage. Madrid have become an abject rabble in the second half.
Full time: Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona. And there is the final whistle. That all turned rather nasty in the end, with Real reacting to the Barcelona goals by kicking anything that dared to move and should have ended up with nine men. It was always likely to end like this, with Barcelona enjoying so much possession, despite Cristiano Ronaldo's early goal. I make that Real Madrid's only shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. Barcelona could have scored a hatful, but had to rely on goals from unlikely sources: Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal. Real now have to win in the Camp Nou next Wednesday. They've played Barcelona four times this season and have lost three times. Pepe steps on Messi's hand; Messi sets up the winner. Thanks for reading. Night.