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Two of the major drawcards may be missing, with Rivaldo injured and Luis Figo suspended, but try telling a nation gripped by a UEFA Champions League semi-final between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF that the historic showdown has lost a little of its appeal.
So intense is the feeling in Spain before today's first leg that the Barcelona sports daily El Mundo Deportivo felt compelled to devote a whole page in their weekend edition to ensuring that it does not turn into a life-or-death drama in millions of homes.
Entitled 'How to survive the match and not die watching it' the recommendations included taking appropriate exercise in the days leading up to the match, remembering not to hold your breath and turning your back on the events on the field in moments of extreme tension.
It was not made clear whether the advice extended to the most illustrious spectators: Figo, who misses out because of suspension, or to Rivaldo, whose injury-damaged season took another twist in Vigo on Saturday when he collected a knee ligament problem in Barcelona's defeat against RC Celta de Vigo. Figo's absence should reduce at least slightly the decibel levels inside the Camp Nou, with the Barcelona public denied the opportunity to make their former hero's return a noisy, unhappy experience.
Rivaldo's absence could be the more crucial because the onus will be on the Catalans to make the play. While Luis Enrique and Javier Saviola turned a dramatic quarter-final against Panathinaikos FC with their goalscoring feats it is the Brazilian's touch of genius that opponents fear most.
There was also a doubt surrounding Zinedine Zidane's fitness after the world's most expensive player reported back from France's international friendly with Russia complaining about a problem, but he looks certain to play as should Madrid team-mate Santiago Solari. Fernando Morientes is a definite non-starter, while the home side were forced to rule out Carlos Puyol on Sunday. Another reshuffle for Barcelona coach Carles Rexach is brought about by Xavi Hernández's suspension.
Barcelona have not succumbed at home to their great rivals since 1983, winning 15 and drawing four of the 19 games played. That poor run was put in jeopardy last month when Madrid threatened to run away with the league fixture, leading through a Zidane goal before Xavi plundered an equaliser.
"We gave them too much of the ball," recalled Rexach, "and we suffered because of it. We have to play like we did in the second half when we retained possession and created openings. We must try and have this match more or less set up so we can go to the [Santiago] Bernabeú stadium with confidence."
The teams have met once before in the semi-final of the European Champion Clubs' Cup when, ironically, a final to be played at Hampden Park, Glasgow, was again the prize at stake. That year, 1959/1960, the legendary Madrid side of Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás eased through 6-2 on aggregate before establishing a European benchmark for attacking football with their 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt.
The following year the teams duelled again with Barcelona this time getting the better of it and inflicting Madrid's first-ever defeat in the competition, thereby bringing to a close the white shirts' monopoly of the first five years of it. Barcelona went on to the final where SL Benfica spoiled their day. Madrid have since climbed on to the winners' rostrum on three other occasions, twice in the last four years, while 1992 marks Barcelona's only title victory.
'Team is focused'
Rexach acknowledges that it is to Madrid's benefit that they have experienced so much success in the competition that it "feels like their own". But the motivation among his team is strong as they look to give a season containing so much disappointment a glorious finale. "The team is really focused for this match and part of that is because we are facing Real Madrid," he said. "If we win we will be heroes, if we lose we will be like eternal losers."
Away goals crucial
It is expected that Madrid will adopt a pragmatic approach, placing the emphasis on caution while saving their ammunition for next week's return when Figo will be available and Rivaldo hopes to join him. Yet they also know an away goal could be crucial. "If you look at our quarter-final the goal in Munich was the key," said Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque. "Barcelona did not score in Greece and they suffered a little bit at home because of it. Our big objective is to arrive in the final so to score in Barcelona would be very good."
The two domestic fixtures that have followed their quarter-final wins highlighted Barcelona's inconsistencies while putting more doubt on Madrid's quest for a 29th league title in their centenary season. Barcelona first had the better of a five-goal contest with Deportivo Alavés, with Javier Saviola twice on the scoresheet, before the defeat by Celta.
Madrid surprisingly lost 3-1 to struggling Club Atlético Osasuna but beat CD Tenerife 4-1 with Guti scoring twice. They trail leaders Valencia CF by a single point.
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