By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
Nothing, we are told, can ever be guaranteed in football but it can be said with absolute confidence that the next el clásico matchup of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid on Saturday will see the good, the bad and the ugly of what Pele called the beautiful game. Boring it will not be. Maybe, just maybe it will be 0-0 but football writers covering the game will not be struggling to fill their allocated wordage or searching for an angle, not with a game involving most of the 10 best players in the world and the two most high profile coaches are involved.
There have been many great rivalries in football over the years but surely nothing beats the current series between Barca and Real. For excitement, drama, theatre, the quality of the football and the inevitable raw edge that goes with Mourinho v Guardiola, these games are unmissable for any football lover.
Saturday’s el clásico has not so much been pencilled in Graham Poll’s television calendar – “it’s been inked in,” said the former FIFA referee who, like a worldwide TV audience, is counting the days to Saturday’s 11th instalment of the Special One against the Cultured One.
During his two seasons in charge of Real, Mourinho has faced Guardiola’s Barcelona 10 times. Mourinho has won only one clásico – last season’s Copa del Rey final. In the 10 matches so far Barca have scored 21 goals to Real’s 11. Real lead 7-2 on red cards and 47-29 on cautions. Perhaps surprisingly Pepe, who many see as the snarling face of Mourinho’s Madrid, has been sent-off only once, collecting six yellow cards.
Alberto Undiano Mallenco, 39, a part-time sociologist, will referee his sixth clásico in the Nou Camp but this time there will be no pre-match pressure on the official from Mourinho who has decided to hold no more press conferences this season apart from Champions League ties where UEFA regulations stipulate a coach’s appearance.
Poll admitted he would have loved to have taken charge of el clásico even though the referee is on a hiding to nothing. He believes Undiano Mallenco must ignore the hype and the likelihood of being blamed by the losing side for their defeat as he prepares for what is arguably the biggest domestic game in world football.
“You cannot think that way,” said Poll who writes regularly on refereeing in the Daily Mail. “You cannot enter a cauldron like the Nou Camp thinking ‘I know I’ll upset someone.’ As the referee, what you know is that you will make a mistake. You hope it is not pivotal with people arguing the game went that way because of the referee.”
Controversy goes hand-in-hand with el clásico, more so since Mourinho – Why Always Mou? – became involved.
“You go out to do your best, to be as fair as you can be and perhaps most important of all remain calm, not becoming drawn into the el clásico atmosphere. In all probability something will happen, a big decision will have to be made and you have to ensure you are calm and dignified. If you are and anything becomes controversial then it will because of Mourinho’s or Guardiola’s actions, not yours.”
Poll refereed his first game at the Nou Camp in 2003, a Champions League quarter-final second leg between Barca and Juventus which the Italian club won after extra-time. It also proved to be his last game in the Catalan capital though reasons for this are never given.
He said: “I used to referee between eight and 10 Champions League games a season, mainly in Spain, Italy and Germany. To only go to one of the major teams once is very unusual.”
Like just about every referee, Poll had his run-ins with Mourinho who recently hinted at a conspiracy theory that means Real Madrid and Chelsea will not reach the Champions League final. The Portuguese said: “I don’t think it will be Real v Chelsea. It could be Bayern or Barcelona, I just don’t think it will be Real Madrid v Chelsea and you know why.”
Poll said: “I don’t think he really believes that. It’s what he puts across as part of his mind games. This way he thinks people will want to be seen not to be getting at him and might favour him. It’s all about reverse psychology.
“When he was new on the scene maybe this sort of thing had an effect. Mourinho was looked upon as a high profile media figure who was very influential but because of all the shenanigans that have surrounded him he is no longer seen in the same way. For someone who has been so successful, winning trophies in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain the level of dislike and distrust of the man is incredible.
“People may not always like the way Sir Alex Ferguson does certain things but there is always a respect for his record and rightly so because it’s fantastic. Mourinho’s won titles and Champions Leagues across four countries, his record is phenomenal but he does not command the respect that should go with such achievements.”
Undiano Mallenco will lead out the teams in the Nou Camp and Poll calls his appointment “a massive honour.” He said: “I refereed a lot of big games but if I were still active I’d love the challenge of el clásico. People might say ‘you must be mad, why would you put yourself through that?’ It’s because this is the biggest of games. You know there will be incidents and controversy but you have to be confident, maybe arrogant enough to believe people won’t be talking about you at the end of the match unless they say ‘he handled it well.’”
While criticised for not punishing Wayne Rooney for using abusive language – looking back Poll accepts he should have done more than just warn the England international – the Tring official won praise for the way he handled the potentially explosive Barclays Premier League game between Arsenal and Manchester United in February 2005. Poll awarded numerous free-kicks in the opening 10 minutes to ensure tackles did not start flying in. Though Mikael Silvestre was sent-off for butting Freddie Ljungberg in the 69th minute and six players were cautioned, the game passed off without serious incident or controversy as United won 4-2.
Poll said: “The reason I closed the Arsenal/United game down early on was because it came in the wake of the Pizzagate game at Old Trafford, there was clearly a hangover from that because of the way Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira behaved in the tunnel at Highbury. Therefore the game needed tight management.
“If I were in charge at the Nou Camp that would be my game plan to start with but having said that you must be prepared to change this. For instance, if Barcelona have possession for the first two or three minutes and stroke the ball around as they can then there would be nothing to close down.”
There is every chance of that being the case because in the Guardiola v Mourinho clásicos Barca have enjoyed an average of 65 per cent possession.
Real go into Saturday’s game with a four point lead over Barcelona, both clubs having won on Saturday night. After the match at the Nou Camp there will be four more Primera Liga games remaining so if Barca are to have any hope of retaining their Spanish title they must beat Real. For personal bragging rights Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are neck-and-neck for the coveted pichichi trophy awarded to the league’s top goalscorer – both have 41 goals so far.
The stakes are always high when Spain’s heavyweights clash but this is not so much a clásico but a superclásico.