Jose’s last stand
FEB 12 — It’s been a terrible, terrible six months for Jose Mourinho.
The outspoken Real Madrid boss entered the new season with his personal standing at an all-time high: he had just led his team to a record-breaking title-winning campaign which saw them amass more victories, more points and more goals than any other team in La Liga history.
In doing so, he joined an elite group of managers to have won four major domestic leagues, having previously become a champion in Portugal (Porto), England (Chelsea) and Italy (Inter Milan).
How quickly times have changed.
Since August, Mourinho’s reputation has sunk to the extent that it’s now a valid question to ask whether he is employable for any major club looking for long-term success.
A year ago, the Portuguese coach could have more or less taken his pick of any club in the world (with the exception of Barcelona, who will never employ him again), but now he has become damaged goods and will be lucky to find anyone who wants him.
The catalogue of self-imposed mishaps is long and disturbing, and can be essentially encapsulated by stating that Mourinho has managed to upset everybody with whom he comes into contact. Players, staff, fans, media, opponents and referees: they all have good reason to resent the man who seems to be driven by an insatiable need for conflict which appears almost pathological.
It now seems absolutely inevitable that Mourinho will leave Madrid at the end of the season, for the fairly straightforward and perfectly understandable reason that nobody at the club can stand him any longer.
He does, however, still have the chance to exercise his considerable managerial powers and turn his departing months from the Bernabeu into a glorious success.
La Liga might be beyond them, but Madrid are still in two cup competitions: the Spanish Copa del Rey, with their semi-final against Barcelona nicely poised at one apiece after the first leg; and, of course, the Champions League, which will see them contest a mouthwatering last-16 tie against Manchester United.
The first leg takes place in Madrid on Wednesday night, and it has the potential to be an absolute cracker. The game has got everything: two of the most famous clubs in the world, possessing two of the most explosive attacking units in the world (and both with defences that are not nearly so strong), competing in the most prestigious tournament in the world; what more could we ask for?
And make no mistake, the Champions League is the one that Madrid want. Of course, La Liga is important as well, but I believe part of their problem this season has been a collective lack of focus in the league as they (maybe unconsciously) save their greatest endeavours for the European stage.
The Champions League has become something of an obsession for Los Blancos due to the fact that they are one more triumph away from landing their 10th European crown.
“Madridistas” take great pride in the fact that their club has become continental champions more often than any other club (AC Milan are next on the list with seven) and being left marooned on nine for a decade (their last title came in 2002) has become a major source of frustration.
Despite everything they’ve endured this season, Madrid are most definitely good enough to end that frustration by winning the Champions League this season. On their day, Madrid are still a phenomenal, formidable force. The problem has been that it’s not been their day particularly often in the last six months, but their potential is undiminished.
With Sergio Ramos and Pepe providing defensive steel, Xabi Alonso classily pulling the strings in midfield, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria cleverly creating and Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain mercilessly finishing, this Madrid team has a roster of talent that can beat anyone.
And that’s before we even mention Cristiano Ronaldo, who can be practically unstoppable for any unfortunate defence that happens to be given the task of containing him — as he proved by downing Sevilla with his latest hat-trick on Saturday night.
Coming up against his old club — to whence he may one day wish to return — Ronaldo should be particularly motivated, seeking to demonstrate to United fans (and Sir Alex Ferguson) exactly what they’ve been missing. As if they don’t already know.
United aren’t too shabby either, of course, although I don’t think they’re anywhere near as strong as their position 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League would imply. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are world class — even if Rooney has become worryingly inconsistent in the last couple of years — but beyond them, I don’t think this current United team is particularly special at all.
They are, however, a far more tightly knit and reliable team than the current dynamic but dysfunctional Real Madrid bunch, and the Spanish side’s unpredictability ensures this fascinating tie really could go either way.
If Real Madrid are — or near — their best, I believe they will prevail, possibly with a fair degree of comfort.
However, thanks to Mourinho’s monstrous mismanagement, Madrid at their best have become an uncommon sight in recent months. Madrid are vulnerable and United have every chance: let it roll.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.