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Mon Dec 22 21:26:42 CAT 2014

Snow White vs 11 Dwarfs

Carlos Amato | 06 December, 2011 00:15
Carlos Amato
Image by: Times Media

Dani Alves has a history of saying it like it is, the clearest example of course being the large tattoo emblazoned across his chest that reads "Dani A".

And the man with the creepy green peepers was at it again recently in the aftermath of Barcelona's loss to Getafe.

"We are a bunch of dwarfs and we need to improve," admitted Alves, in reference to their problems defending setpieces.

The bunch of dwarfs have indeed improved, not by evolving into life-sized humans, but by poking nine unanswered goals past Rayo Vallecano (4-0) and high-flying Levante (5-0).

But the heat on Barca is anything but off. On Saturday night, the 11 dwarfs face the prospect of some highly unwelcome corporal punishment from Snow White, aka Real Madrid. And the La Liga title is at stake.

I was lucky enough to attend the last league clasico fought at the Santiago Bernabeu in April. Our seats were at the foot of the rabid southern stand, within spitting distance of a corner flag. The sheer volume and venom of the hostility spewed at the visitors rivalled the seventh circle of hell.

Leo Messi spent much of the proceedings with a red laser pointer scribbling on his forehead, trained on him by some neanderthal-ultra behind us.

Jose Mourinho's lineup didn't play badly on the night, deploying a mix of surreptitious brutality and galloping counter-attacks. But the invaders prevailed 1-0, through a Messi penalty, displaying all the implacable self-belief that has been as much a source of their dominance as sumptuous technique and tactical innovation.

Now the balance of belief looks different. Real are contemplating a 15th straight victory, and a nine-point advantage in the league race if they win their game in hand.

Mourinho has started to dabble in dignity and sanity, and his team have coalesced into a balanced, flexible machine. Angel di Maria is fast becoming a masterful footballer whose destructiveness rivals that of his fellow marauder Cristiano Ronaldo.

Granted, it's never wise to boldly forecast the demise of Pep Guardiola's project: remember all the hoopla about a looming Real revolution in the week before that 5-0 ritual dismembering they suffered at the Nou Camp last year?

And Barcelona have been lifted by the recent returns of both skipper Carles Puyol (who has been missing injured for all the Catalans' last six defeats) and Andres Iniesta, whose knack for the unexpected has been sorely missed for chunks of this campaign.

In a sense, the contest will be a showdown between quantity and quality: nobody in Real's line-up can rival Xavi or Messi, but many neutrals would pick a majority of Real players if asked to select a combined Real/Barcelona XI on current form.

Here's my Clasico All-Star lineup, using Barcelona's 4-1-2-3 formation: Iker Casillas; Marcelo, Eric Abidal, Pepe, Alves; Xabi Alonso; Mesut Özil, Xavi Hernandez; Ronaldo, Messi, Di Maria.

That's a 7-4 split in Real's favour. Of course some of my picks are contentious: all three of Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago are credible claimants to Ozil's central midfield spot, while the superb Sergio Busquets only loses out to Alonso because he's a bit of a git.

But there's no doubt Real have the moment at their mercy. If they fail to seize it, and get owned at home once again by the champions, Mourinho's newfound sanity will leave the Bernabeu without him.

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