El Clasico enters new dimension
One of the world's great sporting rivalries enters a new dimension on Saturday when Real Madrid play Barcelona in La Liga to kick off the first of four meetings in just over two weeks.
After Saturday's match the two clubs meet in the Copa del Rey final on 20 April, which will be followed by their two-legged Champions League semi-final - with the first game at Real's Bernabeu stadium on 27 April and Barca hosting the second on 3 May.
Both teams have a chance of winning the Treble, a feat only achieved in Spanish football history by Barca two years.
However, Real are eight points behind the defending Spanish champions with only seven games to go and as Madrid's coach Jose Mourinho admitted after the recent defeat by Sporting Gijon, mathematically the league might not be lost, but "in practical terms it is".
Mourinho's Real were beaten 5-0 by Guardiola's Barca in November - photo: AFP.
The juxtaposition of three Cup games makes you wonder whether pragmatism and pride will dictate that Mourinho puts out a weaker team than he might have done on Saturday in a bid to salvage something from Real's season.
Will he rest the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo or will the special demands of an El Clasico match ensure Mourinho has no alternative but to throw them into the fray and hope that they survive for that trio of Cup games.
Both men started Wednesday's game against Spurs but neither looked as though they had fully recovered from their recent injuries, with their return to action being precipitated in time for the first leg in the Champions League quarter-final against Spurs.
The same question could also be asked of Barca coach Pep Guardiola, who might feel that with such a cushion at the top of the table it might be a valid strategy to leave the likes of, who else, Lionel Messi, on the bench.
All of which has prompted many pundits in Spain to wonder whether this might turn out to be the most diluted El Clasico in recent memory.
Nevertheless, this quartet of matches could have a profound effect on the future of both coaches, which means that full-strength sides, with patched-up star players, may yet be the order of the day.
After eliminating Spurs, Mourinho maintained that he was likely to put out his 11 best men on Saturday: "Each of the Clasicos will be completely independent of each other in this context. Each one will not have any significance in relation to the one before or the one after."
Ronaldo has scored 28 league goals this season, one fewer than Messi - photo: AFP.
Nevertheless, most people believe that whoever gets the upper hand on Saturday will also get a psychological boost for the other three games.
For Real there is also the matter of laying to rest the ghost of their dismantlement by Barca in that humiliating 5-0 defeat in the Nou Camp last November.
Speculation persists in Spain that Mourinho might yet leave in the summer if he and Real were to suffer the blow of four poor results against Barca, let us say two draws in the Bernabeu and a couple of defeats in the other games.
Personally, I don't think that will happen because Mourinho and Real have individually and collectively backed themselves into a corner.
Just like the oft-quoted statistic that the Spanish economic recession has led to fewer divorces but more couples sleeping in separate bedrooms under the same roof, neither Mourinho and Real have anywhere else to go, at least for another season.
They must make the most of their marriage made in relative haste last summer.
Mourinho has an estimated salary of £11.5m and plenty of influence behind he scenes at the Bernabeu now that he has managed to partially mould Real in his own image and neuter his rival for influence, general director Jorge Valdano.
Likewise, who would Real turn to if Mourinho is unable to deliver a record 10th European Cup? More importantly would they want to pay off the remainder of his contract?
Financially, of course, Real could find the money but it would be a ruinously expensive public relations exercise, though it would confirm Real's Florentino Perez as the ultimate hire them and fire them president, after dismissing seven previous coaches in seven years during two stints in his current role.
Over in Barcelona, Guardiola does not believe that Mourinho and Real are the underdogs that the European media have portrayed them ahead of these four games.
"It's the chance to compete with one the strongest teams around," said Guardiola. "We shall accept the challenge and go for it. It doesn't matter what condition we are in. What matters is mentality and desire."
Conversely, if Real do rise to the occasion and grab their first Copa del Rey since 1993 - the longest period in their history that the club have gone without winning the Spanish Cup - and then eliminate Barca from the Champions League, it might have the reverse effect and lead to Guardiola contemplating his future.
Guardiola took over the reins of Barca in the summer of 2008 but could easily tear up the one-year extension to his contract he signed in February that was designed to keep him at the Nou Camp until the end of next season.
He caught everyone on the hop at the start of this month by saying: "I think my time is ending here in Barcelona. I'm fine here, but when you're at a club like this you cannot stay for too long.
"Next year will be the fourth consecutive season as coach of Barcelona. Such a club must have a lot of courage to take a coach for so long, because the players get tired of coaches and vice-versa."
If Mourinho turned the table on Guardiola, would the 40-year-old former Spain international find his courage evaporating?
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