Andy Mitten

Over and out for Pep

Andy Mitten

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It's a good time to be a Real Madrid fan. Jose Mourinho has signed an extension which will contract him to the Bernabeu until 2016. Sir Alex Ferguson might think about moving on by then.  Having displaced Barca as Spanish champions, Mourinho's main aim is winning the much coveted 10th European Cup. Don't bet against him. He'll tinker with his squad in the summer, but his players are right behind him staying.

"Sir Alex and Mourinho are the best managers in the world," said Cristiano Ronaldo, who is doing lots of media with his numerous sponsors before Euro 2012. "To continue my career with Mourinho now is just great because it helps me improve and learn more. I don't wish for anything different than that. It's great to work with him because, right now, he is the number one manager."

Ronaldo had a superb season. Ever modest, he gave himself '10/10' for his year with the Whites. He gave his team '9/10'. Ronaldo thinks Barca's period of success has been replaced by a new Madrid domination.

"We changed the cycle in Spain this year by defeating Barcelona at their stadium, which is never easy," he said. "We won with a nine-point lead, which is very large. Barcelona are a great side, but we proved to be better than them at the moment."

Madrid fans will enjoy the summer, but it's Barca and Athletic Bilbao who will bring the top-flight Spanish domestic season to a close this Friday in the Copa del Rey final.

It's being staged in Madrid, but not at the 80,000 home of Real as initially planned.  Numerous excuses were given about why it couldn't be used as soon as the Catalans and the Basques reached the final. Eighty thousand fans booing the Spanish national anthem and then singing anti-Real and anti Madrid songs before one of them lifts the (Spanish) King's Cup was too much for Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. So the excuses came, about the dressing rooms being renovated or the pitch being replaced. Which is funny, because the Bernabeu is staging a charity game next Friday night between Madrid and Manchester United veterans.

Atletico's Madrid's 54,000-seater Vicente Calderon will be used instead for this Friday's clash. The smaller capacity meant that the allocations of both clubs were cut from probably 32,000 each to just over half that. Barca were three times oversubscribed for their tickets, with more than 60,000 season ticket holders applying. The game has extra symbolism as it's Pep Guardiola's final game in charge. He's spent the time since Barca's final league game holding farewell dinners for his players at Barcelona hotels and meeting journalist friends for meals. For someone who doesn't do one-on-one interviews with journalists, he does a lot of one-on-one socialising with his trusted friends from the fourth estate.

Guardiola is loved in Barcelona and by Cules around the world, but he's told friends that he wants a year's sabbatical in New York before he studies the various offers which will come his way. And already have come his way.

New York is a haven for football's famous who seek anonymity. Sir Alex Ferguson keeps an apartment there, Thierry Henry loves walking the streets near his Soho home and going largely unrecognised. Paul Scholes once asked the United team bus to stop on 5th Avenue so that he could walk back to his hotel unrecognised, while Raul has holidayed there with his family for years and Eric Cantona wants to be there as much as possible. It was the main reason he signed up for the New York Cosmos idea. The Big Apple appeals to Guardiola, but first the Copa del Rey final.

After coming close several times, Athletic are still chasing a first trophy since 1984. A barge called 'Athletic' only sails down the Nervion river with the victorious players on when they win a trophy. It was ready to sail in 2009 when they lost to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and it was ready two weeks ago before they lost to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final.

This Athletic team deserve a trophy before several of the players leave as expected and they will play the same 4-3-3 as in most games this season. Bielsa's "11 soldiers" have spent this week practising penalties should the game go to a shoot-out and while Athletic may be noted for their attacking players, they've missed 16 of the 38 penalties awarded to them in the last five years in the league - a dire record.

An injury-afflicted Barcelona don't have the same luxury of a settled XI. David Villa hoped to be back playing by now, but has this week declared himself out of Vicente del Bosque's Euro 2012 Spain squad.

Villa broke his leg in December, but more recent injuries have hit Barça. Carles Puyol is definitely out for Friday and the Euros - he won't be back until next season - while Dani Alves broke his collarbone in training. With Eric Abidal recovering from a liver transplant (the French defender left hospital on Monday), Barca are short in defence. They'll be without their regular goalkeeper Victor Valdes too, with Guardiola going with his cup goalkeeper Pinto. Barca's defence is likely to be Montoya, Mascherano, Pique and Adriano.

It's an intriguing final: Barca against the side who best mimic their style of play; Guardiola against Bielsa, a man he's sought advice from and sees as a master. The league game in Bilbao was one of Spain's best of the season, with the return at Camp Nou not a reflection of what Athletic are like because they had so many injuries.

After Madrid turns a blind eye to what it views as the indiscretions on the doorstep from two invading forces, Guardiola will leave, to be replaced by his assistant Tito Vilanova. He can get the rest he genuinely deserves, but it will be different for around half the players on the pitch, who will go immediately to join up with Spain's Euro 2012 camp. There's no rest for the best. Unless they quit.

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