Barcelona meet Real Madrid in the second league installment of El Clasico on Saturday night, with four points currently separating the top two at the top of the table in Spain.
It’s Los Blancos who hold the advantage, with Jose Mourinho’s side doing the dirty work away from home more successfully than their great rivals. When it’s mattered, style has been pushed aside and substance to the fore.
It’s the mark of ‘the Special One’, who won back-to-back titles at Chelsea by either brushing teams aside or winning tight matches when it mattered during the campaign.
In comparison, Pep Guardiola will rarely – if ever – sacrifice the style-of-play that many believe makes Barcelona the greatest club side of all-time. The former Spanish midfielder believes in playing his way to success, with a pass-and-move system that usually opens teams apart on a number of occasions.
These two men have come to represent their two teams ever since their respective arrivals in Catalonia and Madrid, but things could have been different if Mourinho had been appointed manager of Barcelona back in 2008.
It seems almost unthinkable, given the hostility held between Mourinho and Barcelona, that he could have taken the job at any stage in his career. Think Brian Clough to Leeds United.
But, four years ago, Mourinho was considered for the position, and even got to the interview stage of the process. He lost out to then ‘B’ team manager Guardiola, and the rest, as they say, is history.
"Pep was a very good player for us. He came from the grass roots, so it was easier for him to understand the system and philosophy we needed to win games,” remembers former Barca director of football Txiki Begiristain when speaking to SkySports' Revista de La Liga.
"We decided he could be a good coach for a big team and after one year we could see how he managed the team, with style and improving on the system we imposed under (predecessor) Frank Rijkaard.
"He knew Barcelona perfectly and had a relationship with the media, so he had a little bit of an advantage over Jose Mourinho."
A bold statement indeed, given Mourinho’s impressive track record in management at the time. He had won a Champions League trophy at Porto, and then conquered the Premier League during three-and-a-half successful years at Chelsea.
At the time, the 49-year-old was the hottest-property in football management, and after failing to land the Barca job he went to Italy to join Inter Milan. He would again deliver, winning another European Cup and back-to-back domestic titles.
In fairness to Barcelona, their man has delivered unprecedented success in charge of the club, winning three consecutive titles and two Champions League trophies. The one that got away was, of course, against Mourinho’s Inter in the semi-final of the competition two years ago.
The obvious question that springs to mind is that, if ‘the special one’ was running things with his great rivals, what would be different?
Would he have lasted 40 days like Clough, a single season, or maybe started a dynasty much like the current boss?
We will never know, but Mourinho’s winning pedigree suggests he would have also had great success in charge of the club. The issue for Barcelona was at what cost.
The Portuguese boss has won trophies at every club he’s settled in at, and is likely to lead Madrid to victory in La Liga this season no matter what the result at the Nou Camp on Saturday night.
But his willingness to go ‘roughhouse’ when needed simply wouldn’t do for Barcelona, and their desire to play the perfect game cost them Mourinho. It could also cost them the title this season.
Rejection might just have been the worst thing Barcelona could do with Mourinho. He is a great manager, who revels in the ‘mind games’ aspect of football. His arrival at Madrid was only a matter of time after the 2008 interview, and getting one over on their ‘El Clasico’ rivals is something the man appears to enjoy more than anything else.
It’s true that Barcelona have had the better of the meetings when the two sides have met, but tomorrow night’s match comes at a time when it really matters for both teams, and that is usually when Mourinho’s at his best.
He will be desperate to cope with the passing challenge set by Guardiola, if only to show that he should have been the man in charge. How Madrid would love to leave their mark at the Nou Camp.
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