Early Doors

Final Clasico may be bitterest yet

Early Doors

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Amid all the bitter mud-slinging and conspiracy theories, claims and counter-claims which have blighted this unprecedented 18-day run of matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona, at least there has been one piece of news which is cause for universal joy.

Defender Eric Abidal is back in the Barca squad for tonight's Champions League semi-final second leg at the Camp Nou, just six weeks after having an operation to remove a tumour from his liver. The France left-back is unlikely to start, but his return so soon after such an ordeal truly lifts the spirits.

That, however, is where the goodwill ends ahead of the fourth clash between these two giants in a little over two weeks, and there are more than enough verbal barbs flying around to keep everyone satisfied.

Madrid-based rag Marca is declaring it "The hottest Clasico in history", while Catalan tabloid Sport reckons Barca's 2-0 lead from the first leg has already got the job done, simply stating: "Wembley awaits."

Former Bayern Munich boss Ottmar Hitzfeld has laid into Real boss Jose Mourinho, claiming that his defensive tactics in the first leg at the Bernabeu besmirched "the good name and the image of the legendary club" and that he never took a shine to the Portuguese, describing him thus: "Arrogant, unapproachable, chewing gum, somewhat loutish."

Barca playmaker Xavi has lamented the war of words which has erupted since the first leg, but still couldn't resist a dig at Real's John Beck-style ploy of letting the Bernabeu turf grow long to disrupt the Catalan side's passing game.   

But all of that pales in comparison to the accusations aired by Real assistant Aitor Karanka at his own pre-match presser.

Following his paranoid rant about referees, UEFA and UNICEF all conspiring against him, and as he prepares to take his place in the Camp Nou stands this evening due to his touchline ban, Mourinho did not take his place in front of the world's media for once.

Instead it was Karanka who faced an international press pack eager to wring one final batch of controversial lines from this unique sequence of fixtures.

And the Basque coach did not disappoint, railing against UEFA's decision to throw out complaints from both sides against each other following a first leg filled with persistent fouling, playacting, confrontation and - according to Karanka - racism.

"There will be players on the pitch tomorrow who everyone saw did not uphold respect and fair play on Wednesday," said Karanka.  "They even made racist insults covering their mouths so that no one could read their lips. Two of our players (suspended duo Pepe and Sergio Ramos) did nothing of the sort and will not be at the stadium tomorrow."

Karanka was referring to footage they released which they claim shows Barca's midfield agitator Sergio Busquets calling Real left-back Marcelo 'mono' ('monkey'), something the Brazilian had to endure from Atletico Madrid fans at the Vicente Calderon earlier in the season.

Barca manager Pep Guardiola would not be drawn into discussing it, simply saying: "I know these players. They are an example of professionalism. They love this sport. Some of them, during the game, can make a mistake but as players they are exemplary both for Spain and for Barcelona.

"We are not proud when they make mistakes but I know these players. If we do something wrong, then UEFA have to decide. It won't happen again."

The clip itself is easy to find online. Judge for yourself.

Considering the delectable football feast that was anticipated when these four games were put on the menu, there has been too much bitterness crammed in between the courses which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Now, this final instalment feels as much like a chore as much as a clash for the ages.  

Karanka may have claimed that tonight's match itself is "overshadowed" by such antics, from Busquets to UEFA, but that will not be the case when the kick-off in Catalonia rolls around. Mourinho has to find a way of overturning a two-goal deficit away from home. Quite simply, he has to go for it.

So often he revels in putting rival managers and teams out of their comfort zone with his pre-match comments and often disruptive tactics, but now he has to do something unfamiliar by sending his side out to attack.

Who knows, perhaps he may even start with a proper centre-forward this time?

Both sides lost in the league at the weekend (as, incidentally, did both Manchester United and Schalke), with both teams putting out weakened sides. Despite the title still being a mathematical possibility, and Mourinho losing a second home league game in a month after going nine years without doing so, Real's 3-2 loss to Zaragoza barely registered.

If Real can somehow mount a fightback and beat Barca on their own patch - as they did when they last met in a Champions League semi-final nine years ago - then it will be a price well worth paying.

If not, then there are already plenty of things for him to blame it on after the match, meaning the bitterest pill will take even longer to digest.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I am absolutely ecstatic, I can't really believe this. I am wondering whether I will wake up in the morning and find all this has not really happened. What an amazing two years we have had. After relegation and two successive promotions, Paul Lambert has done a terrific job. I think he is the tops, a brilliant manager. But this night is for our players and our amazing fans." - Norwich City co-owner Delia Smith was in a state disbelief after the Canaries secured promotion back to the Premier League just a year after coming up from League One, an incredible achievement which Lambert himself described as "a miracle".

FOREIGN VIEW: "The decision to retire gradually grew during the season. I had no interest any more to go elsewhere to play. There are no regrets. Thanks to all those who have helped during the course of my career and to my relatives a big thank you, without family and friends it would not have been possible." - Former Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia announces his retirement at the age of 37. The big Finn centre-back will take a coaching role at German club Bayer Leverkusen, where he has spent the two years since leaving Anfield.

COMING UP: This series of Clasicos has already been unforgettable, and something is sure to happen tonight. Follow live coverage of Barcelona v Real Madrid at 19:45, but not before checking all of our build-up throughout the day.

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