Wednesday, 26 December 2012

La Decima: Real's Obsession. Mourinho's Salvation

By Shane Thomas

When Real Madrid president Florentino Perez moved to get Jose Mourinho as the head coach of Los Blancos, it seemed something of a no-brainer. Mourinho had just delivered an unprecedented treble for Inter Milan, with the coup de grace being a 3rd European Cup/Champions League title. This was all the more significant as it was Inter's first since 1965 - despite their worldwide renown, Inter had been perennial underachievers in Europe's top tier competition.
While Mourinho had brought ultimate success to the blue half of Milan, and was adored by his players, he didn't have such a salubrious relationship with the Italian media and its authorities. Perez offered an enticing alternative; take charge of arguably the world's most famous club, already stocked with stellar names, and to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, "knock Barcelona off their f****** perch!"

The task was simple, but not easy. For the duration of his stay in Madrid, Mourinho had to restore Real to the pinnacle of club football. And incrementally, one could say that Mourinho is succeeding. His first season brought the Copa Del Rey with an extra-time victory over Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. However, this was the apotheosis of that Barca side, and Pep's men retained the La Liga title, before putting on a footballing clinic at Wembley to trounce Manchester United, and win the Champions League.

Mourinho's men had been eliminated by Barcelona in an ill tempered semi-final, which only made the pressure on the Portugese more acute in his second campaign. And while Real suffered another semi-final elimination in the Champions League - on penalties to Bayern Munich - they bested their bitter domestic rivals from Catalunya, to win La Liga with a record points haul.

So, the Spanish Cup in the first season, before graduating to the Spanish title in the second. It seems clear what the next step needs to be. But the European Cup isn't just a mere wish for Real Madrid, it's a necessity. It was the competition in which Real Madrid made their name, the one that is an indelible part of their history. There are a number of sides who regard themselves as apposite bedfellows with "the cup with Big Ears"; AC Milan (7 European Cups), Liverpool (five), Bayern Munich (four), Ajax (four). But no side comes close to matching Real's nine triumphs in the tournament.

However, nine isn't enough. All associated with Los Merengues want number 10. This is La Decima. And this is what Real Madrid crave more than anything else. It would be the watermark of club footballing excellence - much like Brazil's fourth World Cup in 1970 - an achievement that would echo through the ages. This is why Mourinho was hired. He is one of a handful of men to win the competition twice. To cement his legacy as a success at the Santiago Bernabeu, he must do it for a 3rd time.

But all is not well. Mourinho's penchant for high drama - in the way he deals with his players, and the national media - has not gone down well. Real have always regarded themselves as lodestars for class & tradition, always doing things with distinction, and Mourinho's conduct hasn't just caused consternation with some of the club's officials, but also with senior players.

Mild conflict has now turned into open revolt, with Mourinho dropping goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas for Saturday's defeat against Malaga. Real are in the midst of a rotten season; third in the league, a mammoth 16 points behind Barcelona, their defence of the Spanish title can be considered over before we've even hit 2013. The togetherness that Mourinho had amongst his sides at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan was easier to foster, as he was dealing with groups of players who were starved of success. At Real, he has players who have already won all the game has to offer, and don't appreciate the Portugese's bellicose disposition.

Spanish journalist, Guillem Balague explains Mourinho's dropping of Casillas thus, "A man wanting to kill before dying." And if his intention is to get the sack, he's going the right way about it.

But there's still a reference point of redemption; La Decima. Perez still thirsts for that 10th European Cup. Mourinho's off-pitch antics may not be commensurate with the way Real like to present themselves, but I doubt Perez was ignorant of that before recruiting him. He compromised the club's principles to get what amounted to the closest to a sure thing he could to win the Champions League. With a testing knockout tie against Manchester United to come in February, it could be an act of folly to let Mourinho go now.

Then again, it is Real Madrid. They've made acts of folly into an art form that the likes of Chelsea can only dream of.


While Real Madrid's travails continue, Barcelona have made a storming start to their La Liga campaign. They sit nine points clear of Atletico Madrid, and any doubts about a rocky transition from Pep Guardiola's management to Tito Vilanova's seems to have been unfounded.

In Germany, Bayern Munich also sit nine points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. With both leagues currently in their winter breaks, many pundits have already declared these title races as good as over. Not only is this deflating for their domestic rivals, but alarm bells should also be ringing for their rivals in the Champions League.

In the closing stages of a tiring season, lethargy can often affect the leading clubs as the Champions League reaches its conclusion. This was a major factor in both the blaugrana and Real Madrid not making last year's final at the Allianz Arena. But if Bayern and Barca can have their respective league titles sewn up by March, they can turn 100% of their focus to the Champions League, which for the other contenders for the trophy, is an ominous sign.

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