Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Spanish eyes turn to Real, Barcelona derby

AFP , MADRID

A derby match between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one of world football's great clashes but today's match has had the tension turned up even further after recent events.

Real comfortably eased past local rivals Atletico 2-0 on Wednesday to grab a two point lead at the top of the Spanish first division while Barca crashed the same night 5-1 in Malaga, their worst defeat for nine seasons.

The contrasting fortunes of the two giants of Spanish football on Wednesday now means that everything is at stake in the Nou Camp.

The reigning league champions from the Spanish capital can consolidate their lead with a victory but they have not won in the Catalan citadel for 20 years.

However, Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard will not want to go down in history as the man who was at the helm when that historic streak came to an end.

Rijkaard also knows that a draw will not be enough to satisfy the club's impatient and critical fans and ease the pressure on him, with Barca having only taken one point from their last three games.

"We have to raise our heads before Saturday," said Rijkaard, acknowledging that his squad's morale had been decimated on Wednesday.

"The only good thing I can take from a defeat like this is that things cannot get much worse."

Giving Barca fans' spirits a small lift is the prospect that both Carles Puyol and Ronaldinho may return for today's match after injuries caused them to miss the disastrous trip to Malaga.

Rijkaard's opposite number at Real also has a psychological matters on his hands but the tasks facing Carlos Queiroz are of a rather different nature.

"Beating Atletico was an important victory and will calm our nerves ahead of the derby. To win like that was a big confidence boost, now the players have to keep their feet on the ground," said the Portuguese coach on Thursday.

Adding spice to the mix will be the fact that it will be the first derby match for England captain David Beckham.

Beckham is no stranger to the Nou Camp and arguably his finest hour was there in 1999 when he won the Champions League with his former club Manchester United.

"I've been dreaming about this match," said Beckham on Thursday.

"It will be different to anything I've ever experienced before and if we win then it will be historic, and not just for me but the whole of the Real squad and our fans."

The night will certainly be unforgettable, although probably not in quite the fashion Beckham seemed to expect, with a capacity 98,000 baying Catalans often posing dangers that extend beyond the Real players' ear drums.

Last season former Barca player Luis Figo was pelted with various objects when he tried to take corners, including a whisky bottle and a pig's head -- and Barcelona have still yet to serve the ground closure order that was imposed after the game.

In 1997, Real defender Roberto Carlos was floored and lost a small chunk of his scalp when a metal cigarette lighter found its target.

"I am not worried. It's my job to take corners and why wouldn't I take them in Barcelona?" Beckham asked.

Nevertheless, Beckham may sadly, like many Real players before him, find an answer to his question tonight despite Barca putting additional police and stewards on duty after the incidents of last season.

Other games almost pale into insignificance in Spain on the weekend when the two old enemies meet but if Real should slip up then Valencia, two points in arrears of Madrid, could reap the rewards.

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