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Real in fine fettle ahead of four-game Barca showdown

April 11, 2011

SOCCER-SPAIN/In our latest Monday Spanish soccer post, Iain Rogers in Madrid looks at the calm before the “Clasico” storm, Johan Cruyff”s latest musings on the Real-Barca rivalry and the recent fine form of Valencia and striker Roberto Soldado.

Real in fine fettle ahead of four-game Barca showdown

With an unprecedented four “Clasicos” in 18 days just around the corner (unless something very strange happens in the Champions League quarter-final second legs), Real Madrid and Barcelona had a final run-out in La Liga before they meet next weekend, wins for each meaning Barca will travel to the Bernabeu with an eight-point lead with seven games remaining.

Jose Mourinho took a calculated risk by leaving Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Marcelo out of his starting lineup for Real’s game at Athletic Bilbao. What was essentially his B-team secured a comfortable 3-1 win against a disappointing Bilbao, with Kaka netting two goals from the penalty spot and providing a splendid assist for substitute Ronaldo that suggested he may be starting to get back to something near the form that won him a World Player of the Year award in 2007.

The Brazilian playmaker, who cost Real 65 million euros from AC Milan at the end of the 2008/09 season, has taken longer than expected to recover from the knee surgery he needed after the World Cup, leading to questions over his commitment and long-term fitness.

“I am happy, smiling,” Kaka was quoted as saying in local media on Monday.

“Scoring two goals gives me more confidence for the future, even if they were penalties,” he added.

“The knee responded and that obviously makes me more content. I was able to play a freer and more relaxed match, and I was enjoying my football again.”

Along with the return of striker Gonzalo Higuain from back surgery, all good news for Mourinho recently at a crucial stage of the season.

Barca, on the other hand, struggled to a nervous 3-1 win at home to bottom side Almeria, falling behind just after halftime but coming through in the end thanks to two goals from La Liga top scorer Lionel Messi and a fine header from up-and-coming midfielder Thiago Alcantara.

However, as Real appear to be putting their injury woes behind them, Barca’s problems look to be getting worse at a critical moment.

Forward Bojan Krkic suffered a knee injury that will probably sideline him for the rest of the season and he joins fullback Eric Abidal and captain and centre back Carles Puyol on the medical list.

Coach Pep Guardiola appears the more nervous of the two coaches, although he insisted at his post-match news conference that he is feeling fine.

A bad-tempered television interview after the 5-1 Champions League quarter-final first leg win at home to Shakhtar Donetsk and a manic performance on the touchline during the Almeria game suggest he might be feeling the heat as he prepares to lock horns with the man whose Inter Milan side knocked Barca out of Europe’s elite club competition last season.

Barca don’t need to win all four games, Cruyff says

Former Barca player and coach Johan Cruyff sought to ease the pressure on Guardiola and his players in his latest column for a Spanish newspaper on Monday.

The Dutchman wrote that it was highly unlikely either Barca or Real would win all four forthcoming “Clasicos” and insisted it was not even necessary for the Catalan club he led to European Cup glory in 1992.

“You do not have to win four matches in a row against your great rival to demonstrate you are better,” he wrote.

“Your objective is to win enough games. And in this case that does not mean four. It means two. The King’s Cup final in Valencia (on April 20) and the return leg of the Champions League (semi-final) in Barcelona. One is worth a title, the other a place in the final.”

Soldado on fire for Valencia

With attention focused firmly on Real and Barca, Valencia produced one of the performances of the season in a 5-0 drubbing of local rivals Villarreal on Sunday. The resounding victory for Unai Emery’s side puts them in pole position to claim Spain’s third automatic qualification berth for next season’s Champions League.

Valencia’s success in holding on to their status as Spain’s third club this season has been due in no small measure to striker Roberto Soldado, who joined from Getafe at the end of last season. The former Real player, who had the unenviable task of filling Barca-bound David Villa’s shoes, has scored six goals in his last two games, including four against former club Getafe in a 4-2 win on April 2 and two against Villarreal on Sunday to take his tally for the season in the league to 12. Surely it can’t be long before Vicente del Bosque hands him a chance to prove himself with Spain.

PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Kaka (L) celebrates his goal against Athletic Bilbao during their Spanish first division soccer match at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao, April 9, 2011. REUTERS/Felix Ordonez.

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