Real Madrid CF will want to scratch an 18-year itch when they visit FC Barcelona tonight.
The last time they won at Camp Nou, Paul Young, not Will Young, was top of the UK record charts, while a youthful Jorge Valdano headed the goal charts in Spain. In 1983/84, Valdano was set to join Madrid from Real Zaragoza, now he is back at the Santiago Bernabéu as director of football. "Some great Real Madrid teams have gone to Barcelona in this time, but never achieved more than a draw," he said. "You can't explain it from a football point of view. It is all about the atmosphere in Barcelona when they play Madrid." Since their 2-1 victory there in October 1983, the Merengues have drawn three and lost 15.
The only conditions worrying Valdano this week were the injuries to Luis Figo and Aitor Karanka. Both will miss the trip to Catalonia, Figo with the recurrence of an ankle injury. The former Barcelona star last played against RC Deportivo La Coruña in the Spanish Cup final. A 2-1 defeat meant the rain in Spain fell all over Madrid's centenary parade. Yet they could still mark the occasion with a Primera División/UEFA Champions League double.
'Occasion won't get to us'
Valdano is confident about this 144th meeting of the sides: "We are a mature team with players that have gone to [FIFA] World Cups, and I don't think they will let the occasion affect them." Madrid, who won the corresponding fixture 2-0 in November, are second in the table behind Valencia CF and through to the Champions League quarter-finals. By contrast, Barcelona need at least a draw from their Group B trip to Galatasaray SK next Tuesday to join them. At home, they lie fifth, six points behind their great rivals; this despite a nine-point lead on Vicente del Bosque's side earlier in the campaign.
Do or die for Barça
The Azulgrana's need for points is greater, as their Argentinian international, Javier Saviola, explained: "It is such a big game for everyone here. But Saturday will not be easy, because things are not going as well as we would like. This is what makes it so important for us. If we win, and results go our way elsewhere, we will be back in the race for the title. On the other hand, a defeat would make it very difficult for us." The Spanish contingent among the 800 journalists from 16 countries accredited for the match would concur with the last statement.
Saviola was frustrated by Liverpool FC in the Champions League on Wednesday, yet hopes to reprise his attacking role alongside top scorer Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo. The Brazilian, though, is struggling with a knee injury and could join Gerard López and Geovanni on the absent list, while Xavi Hernández may replace midfielder Thiago Motta. "I hope Rivaldo plays," Saviola said. "We all know what a great player he is. However, I think we have enough about us even if he doesn't. I don't know who would be the greater loss, Rivaldo or Figo." If neither makes it, then playmaking duties will fall squarely on the shoulders of Zinedine Zidane and Saviola.
Zidane at his peak
The Frenchman admitted to a drop in form at a press conference on Thursday, but added that he was "fully motivated" for Saturday. Valdano expects nothing less of Zidane who, he said, "can breathe life into the team and has the advantage of being able to do so from inside his own half. He is at the height of his powers." He will have to be if he is to supply the bullets to 14-goal Raúl González and either Fernando Morientes or Guti at a ground where Madrid have scored just twice in eight matches.
Valdano also has high hopes of his compatriot, Saviola. "He is at the start of his career, but has already shown what a great player he is with River Plate. At the moment, he operates 20 metres further up the pitch from Zidane and is still learning." How apt that the talk should be of the 'crack' (the Spanish word for a player who can make the difference) on the eve of St Patrick's Day.
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