Real Madrid have a mountain to climb if they are to progress to the final of the Champions League against all odds. They take on Barcelona in the second leg of the semifinal on Tuesday, and with the Catalans holding a 2-0 lead, thanks to a late Messi brace in the first leg, it'll be a brave man who places his money on Madrid.
Jose Mourinho's plan backfired in the first leg. He had hoped to contain Barca till the late stages when he could bring on the likes of Kaka and Higuain to support Ronaldo in scoring a late winner and take a one-goal lead into the second leg. However, the fiery nature of the contest got the better of the players as the El Classico panned out to be a display of boorish behavior. With Pepe seeing a red card, harshly, after Dani Alves' histrionics, Madrid's plan crumbled and Lionel Messi duly obliged with two late goals.
It left Barcelona with a foot firmly in the final and they'll be safe in the knowledge that unless they get too ahead of themselves, they'll have a safe passage to Wembley.
What it means is that Madrid are in a fix. Mourinho can't deploy the 'parking the bus' strategy as it would be more damage limitation than serving the purpose. Madrid have to attack. What is beyond doubt is the quality of their attacking players. They boast the only player who can compete with Messi in Cristiano Ronaldo along with Ozil, Di Maria, Higuain and Kaka. However, without Pepe in their ranks, playing Barcelona in their own game is a car crash waiting to happen. If Madrid venture forward, Barca will counter at breakneck speed with the likes of Messi, David Villa, Pedro, Iniesta and Xavi. If they score a third, the tie is over. Mourinho is well aware of this, as he summarized his side's chances as mission impossible.
However, the two-time Champions League winning manager, widely regarded as one of the best tacticians in the business, is sure to have a trick up his sleeve. It is difficult to perceive what exactly is going through his mind, but it sure to involve scoring an early goal before sitting back and hitting Barcelona on the counter. Though Pepe will be unavailable through suspension, Real's defensive worries will be eased a bit as Ricardo Carvalho, who has gone some way in easing Madrid's traditional defensive frailties, will be welcomed back. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will provide cover for the defence while Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria and either Benzema/Higuain/Adebayor will venture forward on the counter. It remains Madrid best chance.
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola will be aware of the importance of keeping his players in the right frame of mind. Complacency is the last thing they need. Barca will look to score an early goal themselves, thereby killing any lingering hope for Madrid. Unfortunately, Barca should also be apprehensive as there is a possibility of the game descending into a farce yet again if Madrid feel they have nothing to lose.