MADRID: Two of the world's richest clubs and fiercest rivals, Real Madrid and Barcelona, face four titanic clashes in three weeks that will transfix and split the nation.
It's a tantalising prospect for fans worldwide: grudges dating back to the Franco era, personal rivalries, some of the world's biggest stars and a cultural tug-of-war that mirrors Spain's bloody history all spilled onto the pitch in a battle of strategy, tactics and will.
All that multiplied by four face-offs - which have earned their own name in footballing history: El Clasico - may be too much for some fans to take.
The sides from Spain's two largest and rival cities -- the capital of the nationalist-minded Catalonia region against the seat of Spanish power -- meet on Saturday in a league encounter that will kick off the series.
Just four days later they clash in the Spanish Cup final on April 20 before heading into the two Champions League semi-final legs -- at the Bernabeu stadium on April 27 and on May 3 at the Camp Nou.
Real have slipped to eight points behind the leaders and reigning champions Barca in La Liga, and the league game in the Spanish capital is a must-win for Jose Mourinho's side.
The club have already been humiliated 5-0 in the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou on November 29 -- and on April 2 they saw their flawless home record come to an end when they lost 1-0 to Sporting Gijon.
But Barca coach Pep Guardiola is taking nothing for granted.
“I wish we could play more often against them,” he said after Barca eased past Ukraine's Shaktar Donestk in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
“Basically they are the most powerful team, the strongest, and are coming toegther at the right time. We look forward to competing against them. We take every game as an opportunity and a gift. We accept the challenge.”
The matches -- which will pit Spain's two leading scorers Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi against each other -- will also determine whether Mourinho's first season at the Bernabeu will be judged a success.
“In a semi-final anything can happen. They have a great situation with the suspensions, which we don't. But we will fight,” Mourinho said on Wednesday after Real disposed of Tottenham in the quarter-finals.
“We have two matches against them before the semi-finals, so we have to look at those games first.
“We have to take each game as a separate entity. I'm not of the opinion that what happens in the first game can influence the second, third or fourth,”said the Portuguese national, bidding to become the first ever manager to win the Champions League with three different clubs,
Taking a team to their first Champions League semi-final for eight years would be a significant achievement at some clubs, but Mourinho knows only securing Madrid's tenth triumph in the competition would be enough to satisfy his demanding employers.
“I know you are judged by your results,” he said. “If you don't win titles it is easy to forget all the good work that has gone before.
“But I don't think it would be considered a good season to get to the final of the Spanish Cup and the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Real have the better pedigree having won the European Cup a record nine times while Barcelona picked up the trophy in 1992, 2006 and 2009.
Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said it would be very difficult to repeat the thrashing of Real in the last clasico clash.
“Each Barca-Madrid match is different, that was an exaggeration,” he said.
“Historically, 'clasico' matches are very difficult. We will win but we know from a place of humility that it will be very complicated,” he told the sports daily Mundo Deportivo published Thursday.
Regarding the Spanish Cup final, Pique said “anything can happen”.
“We will try to be as concentrated as possible, we will study Real and look at all of their virtues and defects to try to be a little bit better than they are and try to have a bit more of a chance to win,” he said.