Seconds out, round three! As Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona prepare for the penultimate of four meetings in 18 days, excitement levels are at fever pitch. First came a battling draw in La Liga, which took the Catalans a step closer to retaining their title, followed four days later by another hotly contested clásico that earned Los Merengues their first Copa del Rey crown in 18 years.
The setting for the latest instalment could hardly be more prestigious: the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. After the first two encounters, tonight’s opening leg at the Santiago Bernabeu promises to be the most fiercely contested yet – at least until the pair lock horns in Catalunya next Tuesday to settle the tie.
The last time these sworn enemies crossed swords in the competition was at the same stage in the 2001/02 edition. On that occasion, a Los Blancos side featuring Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul and Fernando Morientes won 3-1 on aggregate, paving the way for a 2-1 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen in the final. Now, nine years on from that historic night, Morientes reminisces nostalgically about the Galácticos era, before analysing the forthcoming showdown for FIFA.com.
“That team was special in many ways," the former striker said. "The squad contained players of the highest level, but most importantly, the nucleus of group was made up of Spanish players. We had a great understanding on and off the pitch, and the overseas players fitted in perfectly."
Morientes was equally effusive in his praise of Jose Mourinho’s current crop: “In Cristiano [Ronaldo] they have one of the world’s best, and he’s in very good company. I think the team is being led very well by a good coach.
"Every big footballing project needs a figurehead and a virtual leader, even if that person is not on the pitch. Mourinho is exactly that because of all his experience with the media, and because he has the character to manage a group of elite professionals like those at Real Madrid.”
Until a couple of weeks ago, Barcelona seemed to have the Indian sign over Real, although that could be a thing of the past following the latter’s Copa del Rey triumph - one Morientes saw as vital. "Winning the Copa was ideal for Madrid and will have done their confidence the world of good," he said. "If they’d lost that one, they wouldn’t have been on a good footing ahead of this semi-final, especially with it being over two legs.
“This edition of the clásico will be even more intense, given that the teams are vying to reach a European final. Of course, the desire to beat your arch-rival is always the same, it’s just that on this occasion there’s more at stake and the title is more prestigious."
Morientes, who also turned out for Monaco, Liverpool, Valencia and Marseille, among others, before hanging up his boots in 2010, and who currently works as a match analyst on television and radio, concluded our interview with his prediction for the Champions League confrontation.
“Barcelona are a great side but they’ve realised that Madrid can cause them problems when they stymie their attacking play," he said. "Therefore I think it will be a very open semi-final, with Los Blaugranas now aware that they’re not invincible after losing the season’s first trophy to Madrid. Right now the sides are very evenly matched.”
The splendour of the occasion aside, both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are having to deal with the absence of first-choice players. For the former, it is a question of replacing defender Ricardo Carvalho and midfielder Sami Khedira. And while Alvaro Arbeloa and Lassana Diarra look like the obvious choices to fill in, it remains to be seen how the team will cope with the changes.
At Camp Nou, meanwhile, things are even more worrying, especially at left-back, where the coach is unable to call on any of the three players who normally fill that role: Eric Abidal, Adriano and Maxwell. Guardiola may have little option but to deploy Carles Puyol there, himself just returning from injury, moving Javier Mascherano into the Spain centre-back's customary spot in central defence alongside Gerard Pique. To make matters worse, midfielder Andres Iniesta, one of the key cogs in Barça’s formation, has been ruled out of the first leg with a calf injury.
The stage is set then for what should be an enthralling 90 minutes at the Bernabeu, where an animated crowd, as well as millions of football lovers around the world, will see who draws first blood in the fight to line up at Wembley on 28 May.