Former Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona winger Luís Figo tells UEFA.com why he expects the Liga rivals' UEFA Champions League semi-final tie to "go down in the history books".
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The UEFA Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona is set to capture the imagination of the footballing world, yet for one man this mouthwatering tie will provoke a unique range of emotions.
Luís Figo excelled for both clubs during his glittering playing career, winning a pair of Liga titles and a European trophy with each. His switch from Barcelona to the Santiago Bernabéu in 2000 remains one of the most talked-about transfers in history, arousing a combination of disbelief in Catalonia and joy in the capital. Including the pulsating UEFA Champions League semi-final contest in 2001/02, the former Portugal captain has been involved in more than his share of memorable Clásicos.
Nobody therefore is better placed to evoke the modern-day rivalry than the 38-year-old. With the first leg taking place in Madrid on Wednesday, Figo told UEFA.com why he expects the latest heavyweight bout to be every bit as intense as the ones he featured in. "These are matches that will always be remembered," he said.
"They take place every year but they're remembered due to the history behind the fixture. There's a great rivalry between these clubs for football and also social reasons. That's why the rivalry is so big, but it's important to stress that it's only a football match and people need to look at it in that sense. The stronger team on the day will win."
But who is that team? Might Barcelona reproduce the dazzling football that sealed a 5-0 league win against José Mourinho's team in November, or has Madrid's victory in the recent Copa del Rey final given them the edge? "I don't think the past games will have an impact," Figo reflected.
"You can't think back to what happened in previous matches, you have to think about the next one. They are both coming into this semi-final very strongly. I think they're the two best teams in the world at the moment. That's why this UEFA Champions League semi-final will go down in the history of football."
When Figo's Madrid triumphed over Barcelona at the same stage nine years ago, they went on to claim European club football's most coveted prize for a record ninth time, defeating Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the final. Back then, Vicente del Bosque's team were regarded as the most glamorous team around with such talents as Figo, Ronaldo, Zinédine Zidane and Roberto Carlos. Times have changed, however. Josep Guardiola's tyros have won the last two Spanish titles and they are now the ones attracting plaudits worldwide for their attractive, passing style.
Figo, who retired in 2009 after four seasons with FC Internazionale Milano, expressed admiration for the current Barça side and admitted Madrid's route to Wembley is an extremely difficult one. "I think Barcelona play the better football at the moment," the 2000 Ballon d'Or winner said. "They have a very well defined philosophy, all the players have impressive skill and they know how to play together.
"Football always goes in cycles. We had some years with Madrid when we won everything. Now it seems Barcelona are doing that. It depends on the different generations. Right now, Barça have players who play fantastically well together and who know how to fit into the system. That makes them very hard to beat."
Not that Figo is leaning one way or another. He refused to offer a prediction, insisting that "making forecasts is not a good idea", but nevertheless implied that the presence of his compatriot in the Madrid dugout could swing the tie in favour of the Merengues. "José Mourinho has been very successful," explained Figo, who won two Serie A titles with Mourinho at Inter.
"His teams do well because of the way he gets them to play so I think his presence definitely will help Madrid. He's achieved a lot of victories playing in a certain way, so there is always a possibility he can continue to be successful and to win more."