Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mourinho has won his battle but the war still remains to be won

As Iker Casillas leaned over to kiss the Cibeles statue at 4.30am last Thursday morning, the collective joy of the thousands who lined the streets of Madrid was palpable.

Hours before the Spanish captain had climbed upon the city’s most recognisable monument, Real Madrid had won the Spanish cup final by beating Barcelona 1-0 after extra-time.

It had been 18 years since Real had won the Copa Del Rey. More importantly, it had been two weeks shy of three years since they had even beaten Barcelona, the same week in which they won their last trophy.

In that same barren period their coach, Jose Mourinho, had won five.

On Wednesday, European club football’s most decorated club’s title drought successfully over, Mourinho knowingly agreed he was a ‘title-winning coach’.

The remark may seem unremarkable for a man who is no stranger to controversy and has now won domestic honours in four different countries. But this was no humble acceptance of success, rather, it was a dig at the ideological icon of the club he had just defeated.

Johan Cruyff is a man revered like no other in Catalonia. His is the vision that created the style of football that has made Barcelona the football world’s darling. Last week, in a typically outspoken manner, the Dutchman dismissed Mourinho as a manager who only worked for titles and was not a “football coach”.

“Winning titles is always good. I like being a coach who wins titles,” responded Mourinho.

As inevitable as the Portuguese’s reply was, it is a window into the ideological differences that currently separate these two behemoths of world football.

During the 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu ten days ago, Barcelona completed 740 passes to Real’s 179. Never before had Real been so dominated in terms of ball retention in their own backyard.

The raw statistics on last Wednesday were not much different. Yet, once again Mourinho’s use of an aggressive, athletic midfield three of Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira to match up against the World Cup winning triumvirate of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets worked a treat.

It is not a style that usually curries favour in Madrid. Indeed after the recent league game the legendary Real Madrid player, and now honorary president, Alfredo Di Stéfano was seething about Mourinho’s tactics:

“Barcelona’s football was simply brilliant,” said the man who scored a hat-trick when Real defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final of 1960 at Hampden.

Real he said by contrast, “are a side with no personality. They just run back and forth constantly, tiring themselves out.

Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse.”

As Fabio Capello knows to his cost, even winning the league at Real Madrid means little without style. Last weekend’s draw all but confirmed that the league title will be heading back to Catalonia for the third successive season. Barcelona lie eight points clear with only five games remaining. Indeed, even if Real were to win all their remaining games they cannot equal the 96 points they amassed last season under Manuel Pellegrini – the Chilean was promptly despatched thereafter.

So why has Mourinho won so many plaudits for winning a trophy that until recently no one at the club particularly cared about?

The difference is that the two matches gone were merely preliminaries, supporting bands to the headline act. For what defines these clubs more than anything is Europe’s biggest prize.

Cruyff is so lauded because it was his “Dream Team” of 1992 that won Barca their first European crown. Whilst in Madrid they have spent almost a decade waiting for “la decima” – their tenth European Cup.

Mourinho was brought to the Bernabéu not to beat Barcelona on the domestic front – that would have been a tidy bonus – but to take Real Madrid back to the big time in Europe.

When Zinedine Zidane’s beautiful dipping volley won the Champions League on their return to Hampden in 2002, the first era of the galácticos under president Florentino Perez was in full flow. Real had won the Champions League twice in three years – the good times were never going to end.

And yet they did. Drastically so. For six successive seasons between 2005-2010 Real failed to make it beyond the Champions League last-16. In that time Barcelona won the competition twice.

For Madridistas the need to break the Barca dominance comes at any cost. The second galácticos project under Perez is well under way, the president has already splashed over €400m on players in the past two seasons. But the desperation to beat Barcelona has also brought a new sensation – the need to win no matter how ugly.

And so the Copa Del Rey win was greeted with euphoria by all those with a Real Madrid affiliation.

“Mourinho puts an end to the Barca hegemony”, screamed the Madrid-based sports daily Marca on Thursday morning.

However, his job is not complete. it is the Champions League ties will define his future in the Spanish capital.

Last Wednesday, Mourinho won the battle against his former employers. Win the war and he’ll be headed to Wembley. Lose it and a return to England of a different sort may be in order.

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