Real Madrid have a mountain to climb in tonight’s Champions League semi-final second leg match against FC Barcelona in the Nou Camp.
Not only will Madrid have to claw back a two goal deficit, they will have to do it without two key players. Defender Sergio Ramos is suspended after picking up a yellow card in the first leg, while holding midfielder Pepe is ruled out because of the straight red card he received in the same foul-tempered match in the Bernabeu.
As for Barca, they have a two-goal cushion and can also welcome back defender Eric Abidal and influential play-maker Andres Iniesta.
The first leg was won by two goals from Lionel Messi but overshadowed by the unsightly antics of players and coaches alike and the trading of bitter insults after the final whistle.
Barca’s substitute goalkeeper Jose Pinto was sent off during the half-time interval after appearing to manhandle one of Real’s coaching staff. Then after an hour’s play Pepe saw red for a dangerous tackle, a fact that provoked Real coach Jose Mourinho to send sarcastic applause in the direction of the match officials. Mourinho was subsequently sent to watch the rest of the match from the stands.
After the game, Real filed a complaint with UEFA, accusing Barca’s of unsportsmanlike behaviour including feigning injuries and diving to try to deceive the referee. Barcelona also complained to UEFA about Mourinho’s post-match comments that Barcelona benefited from unfair decisions. UEFA has thrown out each club’s complaint although it is itself investigating both parties.
There have also been allegations of racism, with Real having released a video that they say shows Barca’s Sergio Busquets calling Brazilian player Marcelo a “monkey”.
But after all the childishness is said and done, two of the world’s biggest football clubs are fighting for the chance to play a Champions League final at Wembley on May 28.
Thanks to Messi, Barcelona are firmly in the driving seat. But Real, and in particular Mourinho, should never be underestimated. The loss of Pepe is a significant blow as he is the man Mourinho relies on to chase down Barca’s midfielders and break up the Catalan’s game of passing and possession. And most defences would miss Sergio Ramos. But in Cristiano Ronaldo they have a player that can make a 20-metre free-kick look like a penalty. He has 29 goals to his name this season and is always dangerous. Striker Karim Benzema has scored 23 times for Real this term and has found the net 19 times in the 32 Champions League matches he has played over the years. Mesut Özil, Marcelo, Kaka and Xavi Alonso are also all capable of making a difference.
Barcelona however are never easy to beat, especially at home. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co. will be happy to play keep-ball in the Nou Camp and can afford to be patient. An early Real goal though and their nerve may be tested.
Madrid’s manager has played down his side’s chances of making the final. But there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Mourinho and the off-field distractions provoked by the first leg have provided him with the adversity he relishes.