Battle of Spanish big guns will be an intriguing contest
ONE OF the most eagerly-awaited Champions League clashes in living memory will kick-off on Wednesday as Barcelona and Real Madrid begin their 180-minute battle royal, and 'Inside Right' for one can't wait for proceedings to get under way in the Bernabeu.
Okay, two games of the El Clasico four-game marathon may have already taken place in recent days, but the real stuff only begins with their Champions League encounter. Realistically Real Madrid were never going to catch Barca in La Liga so the 1-1 league draw only served as a way of sounding one another out, while the Copa del Rey doesn't figure too highly in the priorities of Spanish football fans.
Last Wednesday whetted the appetite for the main attraction and provided a feast of football for the armchair soccer fan, with the crunch Premier League clash between Arsenal and Spurs and the Copa del Rey final between Barcelona and Real Madrid down for decision.
Speaking of decisions, 'Inside Right' had the tough call to make of which match to tune into. With both sides in the London derby desperately in need of the three points it was sure to be a gung-ho, rip-roaring encounter, but being a massive fan of Spanish football it was must-watch TV for this writer. The cup final in Spain mightn't be held in the highest regard but the dream pairing added much-needed spice to the occasion.
Thankfully happenings in London kicked off half an hour before the match in the Mestalla so no hasty decisions had to be made and the best thing to do was to relax and see what way things panned out.
Arsenal and Spurs didn't take too long to turn up the heat in the entertainment stakes, with the brilliant Rafael Van der Vaart cancelling out Theo Walcott's opener within seven minutes and then Nasri putting the Gunners back in front just five minutes later - Premier League football at its swashbuckling best.
Kick-off time came and went in Spain but yours truly had to see what would unfold in the remainder of the first-half at White Hart Lane - apart from a flick of the remote control during the very occasional breaks in play.
It proved to be the correct call, with the opening 45 minutes ending in a real welter of excitement. Arsene Wenger's men looked certain to be on their way to a crucial victory when Robin Van Persie put them 3-1 ahead on 40 minutes, but Tom Huddlestone kept Tottenham in the game with a stunning half-volley just before the break.
As everyone at White Hart Lane took a breather, if was straight over to see how Spain's big two were getting on in their tussle in Valencia.
The following 15 minutes was a bit of a snooze-fest with Real Madrid on top but not creating a whole lot in front of goal, so it was an easy decision to relocate back to London for the second-half of an absorbing contest.
The pace was unrelenting in the Premier League encounter, with the introduction of the lightning-fast Aaron Lennon bringing a further zip to proceedings as tackles flew in left, right and centre.
Spurs deservedly got back level with Van der Vaart converted a penalty on 70 minutes but there was still plenty of time for drama, missed chances and superb saves before referee Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle, which was the death knell for Arsenal's title hopes.
Thankfully the Barcelona-Real Madrid match had picked up in the interim and Barcelona were beginning to impose themselves on the game, with Lionel Messi, who remarkably scored his 50th goal of the season in Saturday's 2-0 win over Osasuna, starting to shine as they cranked up the pressure.
However, Iker Casillas proved unbeatable in the Madrid goal, thwarting the Catalans' best efforts. The game developed into the expected bundles of Barca pressure, but this time, unlike other recent encounters, Real looked threatening on the break.
One such break led to Ronaldo's fine winning goal, a victory that will serve as a huge fillip to Mourinho and his men.
Last Wednesday was a tale of two managers - Arsene Wenger who seems to perish on his own stubbornness and Jose Mourinho who will adapt and do what it takes to get a result by whatever means necessary.
Wenger's main failing is his unwavering belief in his own way and his downright pig-headedness and refusal to learn from his mistakes. Mourinho, on the other hand, may be as arrogant as they come but he's not afraid to admit he's wrong, by his actions at least, and makes whatever tactical switches necessary to get the right result.
Before the two recent matches between the Spanish giants, 'Inside Right' would have considered it a certainty that Barcelona would reach the final but the past fortnight has thrown up some definite doubts.
Firstly Mourinho's men restored confidence by ending Barcelona's six-game winning run in El Clasico by drawing 1-1 at the Bernabeu.
It may have done little for their slim title ambitions and their negative tactics didn't go down too well with friend or foe, but it did show they could put the shackles on the seemingly all-conquering Barca.
They were slightly less negative in the cup final, albeit only slightly, choosing to play on the counter-attack and utilise Ronaldo's pace.
Using central defender Pepe as a holding midfielder in the past two games has proved a master stroke by the tactically-astute Mourinho, negating some of the attacking threat of Barca, limiting space and time on the ball with his in your face style.
Barcelona have now failed to score from open play in 210 minutes of football against their fierce rivals. However, they are bound to click into gear again and with the Champions League being of far more importance than last Wednesday's match they should still have enough to see off Madrid over two legs.
The main thing in Real's favour is that the players have gone a long way to shaking off the inferiority complex that they've had in recent seasons and they will go into the European semi-final with a renewed optimism.
Ronaldo looked a broken man when Barcelona dismantled his team 5-0 earlier in the season but on Wednesday he seemed to have the belief back, putting in an impressive, hard-working performance crowned by a magnificent matchwinning header.
If that belief runs right through the team, Real have a chance of causing an upset.
However, it's hard to see them nullifying Barcelona's potent attacking force over two legs and the Catalans should have enough to reach the final.