‘We’re the best, f*ck you’: The story of Barca & Real’s four Clasicos in 18 days

In Depth

After Bobby Robson’s Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain in the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup final, Pep Guardiola pointed at Jose Mourinho and embraced him with a big bear hug.

Guardiola was one of the finest players of his generation; Mourinho was a former school coach who had worked his way to the top. Their paths had crossed a decade and a half before they became sworn enemies, as colleagues and friends.

Six weeks after winning the Cup Winners’ Cup, Barcelona also claimed the Copa del Rey, and a 34-year-old Mourinho took to the microphone during the celebrations in the city, declaring to the fans: “Today, tomorrow, and always, I have Barcelona in my heart.”

The coach shared a strong relationship with Guardiola. They were like-minded, studious and analytical. The duo spent a lot of time together, talking things through and doing the sort of the nuts-and-bolts work that wasn’t exactly the forte of man-manager Robson.

Mourinho and Guardiola have since pitted their wits against one another as managers more often than against anyone else. In total, they’ve met in charge of eight different clubs – three for Guardiola, five for Mourinho – across four countries and seven different competitions.

But there hasn’t been anything like the period in which their conflict peaked in 2011, when the prestige fixture of European football – El Clasico – was played out four times in 18 unforgettable days, defining the three competitions that Real Madrid and Barcelona contested that season.

1. Shared history

Mourinho’s time at the Camp Nou, working under Robson and Louis van Gaal in the late 90s before embarking on his own successful coaching career, made him a natural candidate for the manager’s job when it became vacant in 2008.

Van Gaal had believed in Mourinho’s ability and started to give him more responsibilities with the first team. He even allowed Mourinho to take charge of a 1998 Copa Catalunya game against Lleida. The young coach spoke Catalan in the press conference.

Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s all-time appearance-maker until Lionel Messi overtook him in March 2021, made his Barcelona debut that day. He scored, while Tito Vilanova – who went on to become Guardiola’s right-hand man and was infamously eye-gouged by Mourinho in 2011 – scored for the local minnows.

“Xavi was just coming into the first team when Mourinho was assistant coach and he had a huge amount of time for Mourinho,” says Ian Hawkey, who was based in Barcelona and served as the Sunday Times’ European football correspondent between 2001 and 2011.

“He really learned from him. He loved his attention to detail, the time he gave to talk about football, which is Xavi’s favourite activity. There was a genuine respect.

“When you’re speaking about Xavi, you’re also speaking about Puyol to an extent. They really appreciated a lot of Mourinho’s work. He was a very, very good assistant coach and a superb analyst under Bobby Robson and Van Gaal.”

Having left to make his name as a coach in his own right, winning the Champions League with Porto and back-to-back Premier League titles with Chelsea, Mourinho was the obvious choice to be appointed Frank Rijkaard’s successor in 2008. Not only was he unattached, but he was the biggest name available.

The football Mourinho produced at Porto – reactive, counter-attacking, skilled in gamesmanship – and Chelsea – focused first and foremost on a supremely stoic defence – might have seemed at odds with the Cruyffist ideals of Barcelona, but back then he was a pragmatist in the truest sense of the word, building his sides around the options at his disposal.

There was nothing to suggest he was wedded to a particular style, as he is today. When pitching for the job, Mourinho explained he would adapt his approach to fit the club’s image. In a PowerPoint presentation to vice-president Marc Ingla, he described in depth how he would evolve the club’s famous 4-3-3 shape, potential transfer ins and outs, and the names he had in mind for his technical staff. He even namechecked Guardiola as a potential assistant.

More than one member of the board is said to have been keen to appoint him, but Cruyff – a trusted adviser to club president Joan Laporta – was said to have had concerns about Mourinho’s scorched earth tendencies. Chelsea’s roughhouse tactics as they faced Barcelona six times in 18 months between 2005 and 2006 are unlikely to have endeared him.

“Can we suspend Messi for what you call in Barcelona play-acting?” Mourinho said after Barcelona’s 18-year-old golden boy was fouled by Asier del Horno, resulting in a red card for the left-back. “Barcelona is a very cultured city. It’s a place where they understand all about the theatre.”

Complaints about facing Barcelona with 10 men became a common theme in the coming years. The reference to theatre was later thrown back at him by the Barcelona fans.

There would have been image management work to do, but Mourinho hadn’t yet burned his bridges. Barcelona had gone two trophyless years and had imploded during Rijkaard’s final year in charge. They were desperate for success, and Mourinho was the safest bet.

“At Barcelona, presentation is always very important to the fanbase,” Hawkey says. “It would have been achievable to present Mourinho as ‘De La Casa’ (from the club) because of his previous time there.

“They would have taken a bit of flak about that the perceived negative tactics, but once the Barcelona PR machine trundled into action, you would have found Sport and Mundo Deportivo publishing long interviews with people who’d been there in the Robson and Van Gaal era, saying Mourinho is absolutely great. And some of it would have been sincere.”

Cruyff was on the record in his El Periodico column when it came to his reservations about Mourinho’s style of football and spiky persona, which reportedly made the coach reluctant to meet when Laporta suggested a sit down between the three of them.

“Mourinho’s agent (Jorge Mendes) called me,” Laporta later recalled, “and said, ‘Hey, are you going to bring Mourinho in as a coach or not?’

“I said, ‘No, Jorge, it’s going to be Pep Guardiola.’”


“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it” – Pep Guardiola


Catalonia-born Guardiola, who joined their La Masia academy as a 13-year-old and left at the age of 30 as a six-time title-winner with 382 appearances, was promoted from Barcelona B, having led the reserves to the Segunda B title in his first year as a coach.

“Such a decision (appointing Mourinho) would have changed so many things,” Cruyff said, quickly becoming a vocal cheerleader for his former midfield lieutenant amid criticism after taking one point from his first two La Liga games in charge. “Guardiola was the right choice for Barcelona and, like Rijkaard, he would never do this club any harm.”

2. Cruyffism vs Catenaccio

Guardiola’s Barcelona conquered the world, while Inter’s post-Calciopoli domination of Italy continued under Mourinho before the two clubs were drawn against one another in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-finals.

With flights grounded across Europe thanks to the volcanic ash cloud that erupted in Iceland, Barcelona had to travel 612 miles by road to the first leg at the San Siro. There were complaints about refereeing decisions, but Barcelona were off-colour in Milan, losing 3-1 after Pedro opened the scoring with an away goal.

What followed at the Camp Nou was 90 minutes that have come to define Mourinho and Guardiola’s rivalry. Barcelona wore their Cruyffist ideals on their sleeve as Inter turned back to the Catenaccio of their own legendary footballing godfather, Helenio Herrera. Parking the bus against tiki-taka, to put it another way.


“An arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him” – Louis van Gaal on Jose Mourinho


Inter were controversially reduced to 10 men after 28 minutes after Thiago Motta caught Sergio Busquets with a flailing arm. A straight red, rather than a second yellow, fuelled the fire, as did the Barcelona midfielder’s peek-a-boo act while lying on the floor. The man advantage turned the game into even more of a caricature between two diametrically opposed schools.

Barcelona had spent almost the entire game camped in Inter’s half, struggling to find a way through Mourinho’s expertly-drilled low block. Gerard Pique scored in the 83rd minute, putting Barcelona one goal away from the final. Bojan Krkic thought he’d done it in the last minute, only for his goal to be disallowed due to a handball in the build-up by Yaya Toure.

Guardiola’s side registered 76% possession and 16 attempts – seven on target, nine off. Inter registered none. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar was the only one of Inter’s players to have completed more than 15 passes. Xavi completed 153 alone.

“We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position,” Mourinho said afterwards. “I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball. We gave it away. I told my players that we could let the ball help us win and that we had to be compact, closing spaces.”

If his complete and total rejection of Barcelona’s ethos didn’t completely sever his ties with his former club, how he acted on the Camp Nou turf after the final whistle certainly did: running onto the pitch, celebrating with his finger pointed to the sky as if he were a striker that had scored a last-minute winner.

Not only had he got one over the club that had rejected him, but he’d done it in his own image – with the antithesis of what they stood for.

“[Had Mourinho got the Barcelona job in 2008] I suspect he wouldn’t have gone down this ideological rabbit hole of trying always to play without the ball,” says Jonathan Wilson, football writer and author of The Barcelona Legacy.

“That idea that he who has the ball has fear – if you’re Barcelona manager, you just can’t do that. I think he probably would have adapted. I now think he defines himself against what that Barcelona represented: if they play with the ball, I’ll play without the ball; if they’re going to press high, we’ll play with a low block.

“The victory with Inter is his finest hour, and it will always remain so. And then he tries to do it again with Real Madrid. To an extent, he’s brought in specifically to do that.”

Mourinho bested his old mentor Van Gaal, in charge of Bayern Munich, as Inter completed their famous treble with a 2-0 win in the final at the Bernabeu, a year after Guardiola’s Barcelona won their own treble. While his players went back to Milan to celebrate, he stayed in the Spanish capital to sign with Real Madrid.

Having denied Real’s eternal rivals Barcelona the chance to win the European Cup in Real’s own backyard, Mourinho arrived at Madrid with enormous credit in the bank. President Florentino Perez dubbed the manager “this year’s Galactico”. The anti-Guardiola was arriving to knock Barcelona off their perch.

3. When Spain ruled the world

The La Liga champions may have been left licking their wounds, but 10 weeks later Spanish football reached its apex in Soccer City, Johannesburg.

Beating a Netherlands side that shed their total football roots for a more robust, tough-tackling approach, it was Spain that wore Cruyff’s influence. Barcelona’s midfield – Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta – was lifted wholesale, with further reinforcement from Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso.

Iniesta provided the decisive touch with the winner, but Real Madrid captain Iker Casillas made just as vital a contribution at the other end, sticking out a boot to deny Arjen Robben’s goal-bound shot after a one-on-one. Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol was the first over to Casillas to show his gratitude.

More than half of the players in Vicente del Bosque’s 23-man squad played for one of Spain’s big two, while others – Cesc Fabregas, Pepe Reina, Juan Mata – came through their La Masia and La Fabrica youth academies.

Not only did the national team win an unprecedented three successive major tournaments, but La Liga clubs ruled European football. Of 26 Champions League and Europa League finals between 2006 and 2018, Spanish clubs won 16.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have always dominated the landscape of Spanish football but never was it more evident than in those glory years. Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila was the only member of Spain’s World Cup final starting XI not from La Liga’s big two – seven from Barcelona, three from Real Madrid.

La Roja’s all-time top scorer David Villa had signed for Barcelona earlier in the summer, set to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a former favourite of Mourinho’s who never saw eye-to-eye with Guardiola.

There never lacked an edge when the two clubs faced one another, but there was always mutual respect between Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and Gerard Pique in one corner and Casillas, Alonso and Sergio Ramos in the other. Xavi and Casillas, who made 767 and 725 appearances respectively for their boyhood clubs, were particularly close.

The experience of winning the World Cup together – the crowning glory of each of their glittering careers – should have strengthened those bonds. But the immediate future was looking ominous. Mourinho had already gotten to work.

4. Mourinho arrives

Mourinho’s Madrid got off to a flying start to the 2010-11 season. They went unbeaten in the first 12 games of the La Liga campaign, taking 32 points from an available 36.

When they travelled to Barcelona in late November for the first Clasico of the season, Madrid were top of the table, a point ahead of Guardiola’s reigning champions. It was the first time Mourinho had returned to the Camp Nou since getting drenched by the sprinklers celebrating Inter’s victory seven months prior.

Both sides looked in good shape going into the match. Real thrashed Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao 5-1 the weekend prior. Barcelona, meanwhile, had just beaten Almeria 8-0. Catalan elections had seen the showpiece event delayed until the Monday evening, with seemingly all of the footballing world’s attention on the most hotly-anticipated Clasico in years.

Barcelona destroyed Madrid, winning 5-0 in what many deem the finest performance in the club’s history. It was the heaviest defeat of Mourinho’s career to date. Perez called it “the worst game in the history of Real Madrid”.

Eight different Madrid players were booked. Ramos was sent off in injury-time. This was the shape of Clasicos to come in the Mourinho era.

“After the match in the locker room, there was total chaos,” back-up goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek later recalled. “Some of us were crying, some were arguing, some were looking at the floor.

“Then Mourinho came in. He knew how bad it was, but he looked at us and said, ‘I know this hurts you. Perhaps for most of you, it is the worst loss of your entire career. They are happy now and seem to have won the championship, but they have only won one game. This is just the beginning.

“‘There is still a long way to get the title. Tomorrow, I will give you the day off, but do not stay in your houses. Go with your families, children or friends for a walk around the city. Let people see that you can overcome this. Perhaps people talk about the significance of this defeat but do not hide behind it. You must show your balls. After this defeat, we must fight for the title.’”

Sure enough, Real recovered to win five in a row, and 14 of the next 18, to remain just about in the La Liga title race come spring. They’d also progressed to the final of the Copa del Rey and to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2003, ending a run of six successive round of 16 exits.

Guardiola’s Barcelona stood in their way on all three fronts.

5. April 16, 2011, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona – La Liga

The least important of the four fixtures in 18 days was the second La Liga meeting, an aperitif for the more decisive games to come. Eight points behind Barcelona, Madrid needed to win to close the gap and give themselves slim hope of making Guardiola’s men sweat over the final six matches.

But Real had stumbled a fortnight prior, losing 1-0 at home to Sporting Gijon in their last outing at the Bernabeu, ending Mourinho’s proud nine-year, 150-match unbeaten record on home soil. Perhaps paralysed by the fear of another home defeat or, worse yet, a repeat 5-0 thrashing, the Madrid manager appeared to concede the league by setting up his team not to lose rather than to win.

Having gone with Mesut Ozil in the reverse fixture, the playmaker was named on the bench in favour of a trivote of three defensive midfielders – Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira – a controversial choice when Madrid were playing at home, and with the most expensively assembled squad in history.

Barcelona duly took control. Madrid were reduced to 10 men early in the second half after Raul Albiol’s professional foul on Villa. Messi scored the resulting penalty, but Barcelona subsequently wasted chances to put the game to bed.

The visitors were punished for their profligacy in the 82nd minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a spot-kick himself – his first Clasico goal – following Dani Alves’ clumsy challenge on his Brazil team-mate Marcelo.

Messi and Ronaldo getting on the scoresheet underlined another key dimension to the rivalry at that time. One developed his skills at La Masia, the other was Madrid’s record signing. For 10 consecutive years between 2008 and 2017, one or the other lifted the Ballon d’Or. Both scored 53 goals for their clubs that season and would later become their all-time top scorers.

Mourinho was eulogised in large sections of the Madrid press, but his tactical approach wasn’t without its critics. Voices of dissent were becoming louder after he was perceived to have meekly surrendered the league.

His predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, had led Madrid to a record 96-point haul as they finished runners-up in 2009-10. There would be no such gallant challenge this season. Barcelona’s third straight title was all but confirmed. The only other time in their history when they’d won three in a row was when Guardiola himself was playing for Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 90s.

Jorge Valdano, who led Madrid to the 1994-95 La Liga title, ending the four-year reign of Cruyff’s Barcelona, served as Madrid’s general director during the 2010-11 season. Mourinho might have avoided the looming presence of Cruyff at Barcelona, but Valdano nevertheless made for an awkward colleague, having once famously described the football of his Chelsea as “a shit on a stick”. The Argentinian was out of the post at the end of the season, reportedly on Mourinho’s say-so.

“This Clasico was crap. Madrid did not play like Madrid, they played like Inter,” wrote Roberto Palomar in Marca.

Rob Palmer, the voice of Sky Sports’ La Liga coverage for over 20 years, regards the period as the peak of the rivalry.

“Mourinho had assessed the situation and thought the only way I’m going to stop this Barcelona team is by getting under their skin, by playing park the bus tactics,” says Palmer. “You had the purity of Pep and Mourinho coming in and spoiling his Cinderella image. Those games went further than an edge, I’d say they had a certain unpleasantness.”

But the point gave Mourinho something to build on, and hope for the days to come. It was the first time that Barcelona, with Guardiola in the dugout, had failed to beat Madrid. They had won all five of the previous meetings by an aggregate scoreline of 16-2.

6. April 20, 2011, Mestalla, Valencia

Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona – Copa del Rey final

Mourinho’s Inter had demonstrated it, and now so had Mourinho’s Madrid: Barcelona could be stopped.

The disruptor, as he’d been dubbed, went with the same approach he’d gone with in the league, four days prior. Mesut Ozil was brought back in, replacing Karim Benzema in the front three, while the sturdy trivote of Pepe, Alonso and Khedira remained. Ramos was moved to centre-half in place of the suspended Albiol, and Alvaro Arbeloa came in at right-back.

Guardiola went close to his strongest team, with the classic front three of Villa, Messi and Pedro ahead of the classic midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. Puyol had suffered a knock in the last game and dropped to the bench as Javier Mascherano came into the defence alongside Pique.

Nine of their XI – with Eric Abidal back in for Adriano at left-back, and first-choice goalkeeper Victor Valdes back in for his deputy Jose Manuel Pinto – later outclassed Manchester United in one of the great Champions League final performances. But they couldn’t find a way past Madrid in the Copa del Rey final, another anticlimactic occasion whereby the simmering tension, tetchiness and gamesmanship overshadowed the football itself.

The final was all about what Mourinho had wanted it to be: which team blinked first. After 102 goalless minutes, Messi gave the ball away in midfield, and Alves failed to get tight enough to Di Maria out on the wing. A perfect cross was met by a towering leap from Ronaldo, who bulleted a header past Pinto.

Ronaldo had already scored more than 70 goals for Madrid, but this was his first big one – the match-winner for his first piece of silverware at the club, and their first trophy in three long seasons since Guardiola was appointed at Barcelona.

Things eventually boiled over in injury time as an eighth booking was dished out, a second for Di Maria. But this was one sending off that Mourinho could stomach.

Madrid hadn’t won the competition since 1993 and rarely took it seriously since. But in those circumstances, it meant a lot. They even paraded the trophy with an open-top bus parade, by no coincidence scheduled for the same day Barcelona secured the league title.

7. El Puto Amo

Besides Ronaldo’s goal, the other incident of note in Madrid’s Copa victory was a goal not given for Barcelona, disallowed for a close but correct offside call on Pedro. After the defeat, Guardiola had stated it was evidence of the final being decided in the fine margins.

Mourinho may well have found some other buttons to push, but he had his ammunition and wasn’t going to let an opportunity to needle Barcelona with the biggest games still to come.

“A new era has begun,” the Portuguese responded. “Until now there were two groups of coaches. One very, very small group of coaches that don’t speak about refs and then a big group of coaches, of which I am part, who criticise the refs when they have mistakes – people like me who don’t control their frustration but also people who are happy to value a great job from a ref.

“Now there is a third group, which is only [Guardiola], that criticises referees when they get decisions right! There is a new meaning to [football] now. In his first season [Guardiola] lived the scandal of Stamford Bridge [in the semi-final], last year he played against a 10-man Inter. Now he is not happy with refs getting it right. I am not asking the referee to help my team. If the referee is good, everyone will be happy – except Guardiola. He wants them to get it wrong.”

What followed was among the most explosive and extraordinary press conferences in the history of football. Guardiola had held his tongue all season. Finally, after one barb too many, he snapped – albeit still in his own methodical, calculated way, with a lengthy scripted monologue ahead of the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.

“Tomorrow at 8.45 we will play a match on the field. Outside of the field, he has won the entire year, the entire season and in the future. He can have his personal Champions League outside the field. Fine.
“Let him enjoy it, I’ll give him that. But this is a game. When it comes to sport we will play and sometimes we will win, sometimes we will lose. We are happy with smaller victories, trying to get the world to admire us, and we are very proud of this.
“I can give you an immense list of things [that we could complain about]: 300,000 things. We could remember Stamford Bridge and another thousand things but I do not have that many people working for me. Secretaries and referees and people writing stuff. So tomorrow, 8.45pm, we will take to the field and we will try to play football as best as possible.
“In this room [Real Madrid’s press room], he is the chief, the fucking man. In here he is the fucking man and I can’t compete with him. If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager.
“But we, as a person and an institution, don’t do that. I could talk about [Olegario] Bequerenca [the referee from last season’s Barcelona-Inter semi-final first leg], about the offside goal from Diego Milito or the penalty of [Dani] Alves, but I don’t. Well, until tonight!
“If you think after three years, that I always moan, always make excuses and always complain, then there is nothing I can do about that.
“We worked together for four years. He knows me, I know him and that’s all. If he wants to go by things written after the Copa del Rey by friends from the written press or Florentino Perez, with his milkmaid’s tales, then fine.
“If that matters more than our relationship, then that’s up to him. I am not going to justify my words. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when someone you had a relationship with does [what he has done]. I always thought that when people didn’t understand me, it was because I had explained myself badly, but now I don’t.
“I said the referee [in the cup final] had been smart and very attentive. I said it was right. I pointed out simply that the result can be down to small things, that’s all. It was not a complaint. After victory I congratulated Real Madrid and that is what Barcelona does. We congratulated Real Madrid for the cup that they won on the field against a team that I represent proudly.”

“I was there and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sid Lowe, author of Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid, said on a recent episode of The Spanish Football Podcast. “Guardiola comes in and he’d decided, ‘That’s it, I’m going to give some back, which one of these is Jose’s camera? Okay, Jose, basically, you and me – outside.’

“You’re looking around the room and everyone’s looking at each other going ‘wow’ and there’s this sense of everyone reaching for their phones, as if they were pulling guns out of holsters, getting ready for the fight – ‘Quick, tell the desk this has blown up, save me some space. Don’t give me 300 words for this press conference, give me a thousand.’

“That was really electric. Genuinely. It was in the heart of that crescendo of Clasicos, and it was huge hearing him say that. You weren’t sure if he’d done this planned or if he’d lost the plot, or if this would rebound against him.”

The decision to bite back could have gone one of two ways. Kevin Keegan taking Sir Alex Ferguson’s bait in 1996 formed part of Newcastle United’s doomed title charge, while Steven Gerrard described Rafael Benitez’s infamous “facts” press conference in 2009 as “humiliating” and “a disaster”.

There’s an argument that for Guardiola it was an early indication of the mental strain he was under, which became more evident the following season.

But in the immediacy, it appeared to have been a masterstroke. When Guardiola returned to the team hotel, his players gave him a round of applause as he entered the room. They maintained faith in their manager. They were ready to follow him into a battle.

8. April 27, 2011, Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona – Champions League semi-final, first leg

After all the talking came the main event.

Ricardo Carvalho was suspended and Sami Khedira was injured, but even amid his diminishing options, Mourinho persisted with the trivote that had successfully stodged up the midfield battle, keeping Pepe in midfield alongside Alonso and bringing in Lassana Diarra (naturally, wearing the No.10 shirt) with the same backline that had kept Barcelona out in the Copa. Ozil once again featured alongside Di Maria and Ronaldo in the frontline.

Iniesta was injured for the visitors, meaning Seydou Keita came back in, while Puyol slotted in at left-back with Abidal and Adriano unavailable.

Yet again, with the stakes raised higher, it was a cagey affair. As ever, Barcelona had the possession and territory. Xavi completed 56 of the 56 passes he attempted in the first half. The closest things got to a flashpoint came after the half-time whistle had been blown; back-up Barcelona ‘keeper Pinto was given his marching orders amid a half-time tunnel scuffle.

As he’d done in the previous two games, Mourinho turned to Emmanuel Adebayor, not Gonzalo Higuain or Benzema, as his first port of call, as if what this powder-keg needed was a striker who had run the length of Manchester City’s pitch to celebrate in front his former Arsenal fans the season prior. Kaka, briefly the world’s most expensive player before Ronaldo, was an unused substitute on all three occasions.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Pepe was shown red for a high challenge on Alves – albeit replays subsequently showed there was little, if any, contact. He became the fourth Madrid player in as many matches to be sent off against Barcelona. Mourinho had seen Didier Drogba, Del Horno, Motta, Ramos, Albiol, Di Maria and now Pepe dismissed for teams he was in charge of against the Catalan side.

Ever the showman, Mourinho applauded Alves, told the fourth official “well done” and was promptly sent off himself. Ever the martyr, he watched the remainder from behind metal bars. The cameras showed him feverishly scribbling into a notebook, as if he’d given up on watching the remainder in favour of scripting his post-match interview. If he wasn’t going to get the result he wanted, he’d sure as hell have a get-out clause.

Guardiola had taken until the 106th minute of the Copa final to make a change. Once again his bench was lacking inspiring figures, with Ibrahim Afellay the first player he turned to against Madrid’s 10 men, in the 71st minute. Within five minutes of his introduction came the moment of the Dutch winger’s career, beating Marcelo and crossing into the six-yard box for Messi to tap home.

Then, in the 87th minute – 300 minutes into the series of clashes – came a pure footballing moment to puncture all the bitching, all the column inches, all of the ugliness; the moment Messi definitively outgrew debates about being the best contemporary player in the world, and instead joined Pele, Maradona and Cruyff among the best players in history.

After Maradona scored the goal of the century against England in 1986, Hector Enrique, who had passed the ball to El Diego inside his own half, claimed an assist by joking: “With a pass like that, how could he miss?”

Sergio Busquets could have adopted that line. Having received the ball from Messi, Busquets stopped dead, stood still and watched as the little Argentinian took it back and scuttled towards the goal, dribbling past Diarra, past Ramos and past Albiol, nipping in just ahead of Marcelo before slotting past Casillas.

“It was so striking amid all this hullabaloo, this noise, this fever, that this guy just kept his cool and won the semi-final basically,” says Ian Hawkey.

“I suspect all of us were a little bit guilty of being so tied up with the theatre of it that we may have missed the fact that neither of these great managers, unless they deliberately went out to do it, were able to stop the actual football being rather suffocated by all this theatre.

“And at some point, that becomes the fault of the managers who are preparing the players to be their best. The players were clearly affected by this, slightly paralysed by the whole theatre around it, which made it so striking that Messi rose above this event at a key moment in the saga.”

Xavi declared the result “a victory for football”, serving a reminder of the difference between the two clubs and how they identify themselves – depending on your club colours, it was either a statement of Barcelona’s staunch belief in aesthetic values, or their tedious moralising.

As all hell broke loose amid the post-match fallout, deep inside the bowels of the Bernabeu, there was a tender moment between two friends.

“I just remember being in the mixed zone as Casillas was doing a radio interview,” Ian Hawkey says. “Seeing Pique who was doing his own thing, and how he gently and unostentatiously gave Casillas a pat on the back as he went past, which really reminded you that though they’d been obliged to put on these masks of venom – and certainly in Pique’s case, provocation – that there was still that relationship there.

“A reassurance that behind all the toxicity between the managers isn’t going to completely undermine what we’ve done together.”

9. ¿Por Que?

If Guardiola’s outburst was a year in the making, Mourinho’s astounding post-match diatribe might well have begun ruminating in 2008, when he – the “special one” – had been snubbed for Barcelona’s B-team coach, or further back still, when some at the club had haughtily dismissed him as “the translator”.

“If I tell Uefa what I really think and feel, my career would end now. Instead I will just ask a question to which I hope one day to get a response: Why? Why? Why Ovrebo? Why Busacca? Why De Bleeckere? Why Stark? Why? Because every semi-final the same things happen. We are talking about an absolutely fantastic football team, so why do they need that? Why? Why does a team as good as they are need something [extra] that is so obvious that everyone sees it?
“Why Ovrebo [two] years ago [when the Norwegian referee did not give Chelsea a series of penalties against Barcelona]? Why couldn’t Chelsea go to the final? Last year it was a miracle that Inter got there playing with 10 men for so long. A miracle. Why weren’t there four penalties against Chelsea [in 2009]? Why send off [Arsenal’s Robin] Van Persie [in the last 16]? Where does their power come from?
“It could have been 0-0 tonight, but then suddenly we are down to 10 men and they have a free path to find solutions that they could not find before then: we could have played for three hours and they would not have scored. But today we have seen that it is not difficult – it is impossible.
“The question, is why? I don’t know if it is the Unicef sponsorship or if it is because they are nice guys. I don’t understand. Congratulations to Barcelona on being a great team and congratulations for all the other stuff you have which must be very hard to achieve. They have power and we have no chance. Chelsea had bans for Drogba and Bosingwa; Wenger and Nasri were banned for Arsenal; me today. I don’t know why. All I can do is leave that question here in the air and hope that one day I will get the response. They have to get to the final, and they’ll get there, full stop.
“We will go there with pride and respect for football. It is a world that sometimes disgusts me to live in and earn a living from, but it is my world. We have to go there without Pepe, who didn’t do anything, without [the suspended] Ramos, who did nothing, without a coach who can’t be on the bench. It is impossible. And if we score a goal and open up the tie a little, they will just kill it again. Tonight we have seen that we do not have any chance.”

The incendiary comments, whereby even Unicef didn’t avoid getting caught in the shrapnel, resulted in a €50,000 fine and a five-match ban from UEFA. He wouldn’t be on the touchline for the second leg.

The fallout from the match also saw Madrid release a video from the first leg alleging that Busquets had racially abused Marcelo, calling him “mono” (monkey), covering his mouth with his hand. Guardiola denied the allegations, and UEFA dismissed the case “due to a lack of strong and convincing evidence”.

10. May 3, 2011, Camp Nou, Barcelona

Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid – Champions League semi-final, second leg

Whether or not Mourinho was right about whether Madrid couldn’t, they didn’t.

Los Blancos arrived at the Camp Nou chasing the two-goal deficit with a slightly more expansive approach. A third defensive midfielder was sacrificed for Kaka, featuring in the No.10 role, as their shape adapted to a 4-2-3-1 with Higuain up top. Iniesta returned for Barcelona, who continued with their non-negotiable act of smothering the opposition.

Finally, some football broke out, and two great sides were able to play out the most absorbing encounter of the four. Barcelona had 12 attempts, half of them from Messi, while Ronaldo uncharacteristically didn’t register one, with Di Maria out on the other flank the livelier of the two.

In the 54th minute, Pedro, on the end of a thread-needle through ball from Iniesta, extended Barcelona’s lead to three goals on aggregate. Madrid equalised on the night, with Marcelo on hand for a tap-in after Di Maria had been denied by the post, but they failed to push it any further from there.

Madrid ended the night on a relatively paltry five bookings, Barcelona just one. When the final whistle blew all 22 men finally remained on the pitch. The four matches had ended with 25 yellows and five red cards.

With a collective sigh of relief, it was all over.

Mourinho’s Madrid had come away from the 18 days with a trophy and a renewed belief that the impregnable Barcelona could be toppled. Guardiola’s speech had worked as a rallying cry, but it was perhaps an early hint of the pressure getting to him and the exhaustion that saw him walk away the following summer.

“I think actually in retrospect it was probably a mistake,” says Jonathan Wilson. “I think that showed that [Mourinho] had got to him. It’s easy to say when you’re not the one on the receiving end, but I think probably he’d have been better off just carrying on, holding Mourinho at arm’s length.

“[Guardiola] is clearly somebody who’s very, very intense. Particularly then, before he learned how to calm himself. Particularly because it’s Barcelona, his club, the club he knows better than anywhere else, where the politics are so constantly complicated.”

The following season Madrid had completed their transformation into a brutally efficient counter-attacking side, winning the title with a record 100-point haul and record 121 goals scored.

The rivalry with Barcelona failed to simmer down, and the tone for the upcoming campaign was set by Mourinho poking Tito Vilanova in the eye after the curtain-raising Supercopa. (In December 2012, Atletico Madrid assistant Mono Burgos reference the incident, shouting down the touchline to Mourinho: “I’m not Tito, I’ll rip your head off.”)

Relationships between the two sets of players within the Spain dressing room became yet more fractious, as painstakingly chronicled in Diego Torres’ remarkably salacious The Secret World Of Jose Mourinho, but they held firm enough to triumph at Euro 2012.

But 2010-11 had belonged to Barcelona, who completed a double in style by comprehensively outplaying Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United with a 3-1 victory in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Mourinho’s “¿por que?” speech, delivered in an almost comical squeak as if he were doing an impression of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, was repeated by Barcelona’s fans as they celebrated.

“Why, why, why, why? Because we’re the best. Fuck you.”

By Nestor Watach


More from Planet Football

‘I won 10-0’: When Michael Laudrup ruled El Clasico for Barca and Real

Can you name every player to score in El Clasico in the 2010s?

A forensic analysis of the night Ronaldinho had Real fans on their feet

What they said: The 14 players to work for Mourinho and Guardiola