Mourinho goes for broke in bid to salvage season

Real Madrid coach aims to upset Barça in tonight's Spanish Cup final and secure his first trophy at new club

In the potentially volatile atmosphere of the first Clasico on neutral soil in 20 years, any literal flag-planting in the centre-circle à la Graeme Souness as Galatasaray manager in 1996 will be ill-advised tonight. But if Jose Mourinho can steer Real Madrid to their first trophy in almost three years by beating Barcelona a gesture of similar proportions will have been made – you might have dominated things recently but we're back to make sure you don't have it all your own way.

Barça are the favourites to win this evening's Copa del Rey final in Valencia but the incentive for Real could just be the difference between the two teams. For Pep Guardiola's side this will be "another" trophy; for Real it will be the first one they have won since he took over at the Nou Camp. And it will be Mourinho's first at the club.

"Scoring five seconds before the end would be perfect," said Jorge Valdano last night, and for once Mourinho would agree with Real's director general. The important thing is the win not the manner of the victory.

The Portuguese is still walking the thin line between success and failure as Real coach and this game will go a long way to defining his first season report card. Lose and the unthinkable trophyless first campaign looms, win and regardless of what happens between now and the end of next month he gets a "pass" instead of a "fail".

Club legend Alfredo di Stefano might have raged against the Spanish giant playing "mouse" to Barcelona's "big cat" in the 1-1 La Liga draw at the weekend and various Madrid commentators might have asked how such an expensive line up could adopt such a defensive approach but the Real fans only want one thing – to beat Barcelona.

If Mourinho masterminds that tonight he will be forgiven finishing second in the league and even falling to their old rivals in the Champions League semi-finals – his credibility in that particular competition has already been established having guided Real to the last eight for the first time in six years.

Guardiola said last night that "Real Madrid have shown this season that they can play in many different ways," but everyone who watched Saturday's smothering of everything that moved in a red-and-blue shirt knows Mourinho's tactics will be the same in the Mestalla.

It was a year ago to the night exactly that his Internazionale side beat Barcelona 3-1 at San Siro in the Champions League with the perfect anti-Barça performance – impeccable defending, lightning counter-attacks down both sides of an often under-manned defence and lethal finishing. It remains the darkest hour in Guardiola's glorious three-season reign that has so far seen him win all six cup finals he has contested.

Mourinho has played 13 finals and only lost four of them. He kick-started his Chelsea reign with a Carling Cup win over Liverpool in 2005 and his sides have reached at least one final every season since 2003.

The two sides have met in five Copa del Rey finals and Barça have won three to Real's two, including the last encounter in 1990. This being the King's Cup and Catalonia "not being part of Spain" as far as many Barcelona fans are concerned, extra tension is guaranteed.

In the 2009 final between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao the national anthem was drowned out by both sets of fans – tonight La Marcha Real will be played at 120 decibels to make sure it is heard and while 20,000 fans at one end will hum along – there are no words – organisers will hold their breath to see the level of respect, or lack of it, shown from the 20,000 Barça fans.

"We've won your league, now we are going to win your King's Cup," Gerard Pique was alleged to have said in tunnel altercations after Saturday's draw. Real defender Pepe has been accused of spitting, as recriminations go back and forth from one side to the other. Guardiola confirmed that there were "heated discussions" in the Bernabeu tunnel but kept his counsel when asked to elaborate.

Over 5,000 police will be deployed throughout the country to control both the game and the homecomings of both teams. Around 3,000 officers will be based around the Mestalla and the two giant fan-centres that have been set up in Valencia for both sets of supporters. Another thousand will patrol both cities in anticipation of the wake/celebrations that follows.

In his efforts to bring a little harmony to the brewing discord, Guardiola also defended Real Madrid's right to allow the grass at the Bernabeu pitch to grow longer than usual at the weekend. "We decide how long our pitch grass is," he said. "They decide how long theirs is and the Spanish federation will decide how long the grass is in Valencia."

The Mestalla groundsmen have promised a short, fast surface and that along with predicted rain showers for tonight will suit Barcelona more than Madrid, who do, however look set to recall their most cultured player, Mesut Ozil. The German was left on the bench on Saturday but changed the game when he came on in the second half and should start behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria in attack at the expense of Karim Benzema.

Barcelona (probable, 4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Pique, Busquets, Adriano; Xavi, Mascherano, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa.

Real Madrid (probable, 4-3-3): Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Carvalho, Marcelo; Khedira, Pepe, Alonso; Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo.

Kick-off 8.30pm. TV: Sky Sports 2.

1943 and all that: El Clasico and the Copa del Rey

* The last Clasico meeting in a Copa del Rey final was 21 years ago, Barcelona winning 2-0 at the Mestalla in Valencia - also the venue tonight. Guillermo Amor and Julio Salinas scored in that 1990 victory. The clubs have met 16 times in the competition, including five finals in which Barcelona lead three wins to two.

* Barcelona have lifted the trophy a record 25 times, the last coming two years ago when they beat Athletic Bilbao 4-1, again at the Mestalla, as part of a treble. Real Madrid have 17 cup victories.

* The biggest Clasico victory in the Copa del Rey came in 1943, Real Madrid winning a remarkable semi-final second leg 11-1. However, before the game the Barça players, who had won the first leg 3-0, were 'visited' in their dressing room by General Franco's director of state security – an incident that has added to the bad blood between the clubs.

Michael Lynch and Michael Butler

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