Turning around a 2-0 deficit to Real Madrid CF at the Santiago Bernabéu in the UEFA Champions League semi-final sounds like mission impossible. Turning it round in Madrid's centenary year when all other hope of silverware has slipped through their fingers even worse. But one thing is for sure, FC Barcelona maverick Patrick Kluivert will relish the challenge.
The 25-year-old Dutch striker came to prominence as a cocky 18-year-old in the Champions League final against Milan AC in 1995, scoring the only goal of the match to deliver the European crown to AFC Ajax. Like Madrid tonight, the Italians were overwhelming favourites in the game: they had won the tournament three times in the previous six years, while Madrid have won twice in the last three seasons. Quite simply, the underdog tag will bring the best out of Kluivert and César Sánchez, Madrid's goalkeeper,will need to be at his supreme best.
A tough encounter has been made even more difficult with the news that Kluivert appears to have lost his two most crucial attacking allies, with the mercurial Rivaldo definitely out and Luis Enrique now doubtful. Dani has been called up to the full squad after missing most of the season and Javier Saviola, a player with unbounded talent and enthusiasm, looks set to start, but the loss of two such important stars will weigh heavily on the Dutchman.
Yet Kluivert’s strike-rate at every level of the game is impressive. This season he has scored 16 goals in 34 Primera División games, in nine years of European competition he has notched up 29 from 66 and at international level it is 34 from 60. Indeed, the prolific marksman got his name on the scoresheet at the weekend in the 4-1 defeat of Villareal CF and was unlucky not to do so against Madrid at the Camp Nou last week, when only a spectacular save by César stopped Barcelona from opening the scoring.
Indeed, the 30-year-old goalkeeper has distinguished himself since taking the place of Madrid's young icon Iker Casillas. Signed by the club from Real Valladolid in the summer of 1999, César arrived in the capital at the beginning of last season and has made his presence felt in the squad with his excellent positioning, wonderfully athletic shot-stopping and overall consistency. Indeed, he was arguably Madrid's man of the match in the first leg, producing a succession of superb saves and staying on the field despite being knocked out in a collision with his own player Claude Makelele.
Past encounters with Barcelona, however, have been far from fruitful. In his debut for Vallodolid in May 1992 he conceded six goals in a home defeat to the Catalan club, and his mistake in the league match at the Camp Nou last month, letting in a weak shot from Xavi Hernández, allowed Barcelona to share the honours. But his attitude is exemplary and he said after that game: "When you have a difficult time you have to work even harder. Any goalkeeper can concede a goal like that."
Madrid were beaten 2-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in the King's Cup final by RC Deportivo La Coruña and they have all but blown their hopes of winning the league title with consecutive defeats to strugglers Club Atlético Osasuna and Real Sociedad. Barcelona have also underachieved this term and are fighting merely to gain a spot in next season's Champions League. Indeed, the contest between César and Kluivert could leave one of these famous clubs empty-handed come the end of the season.
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