The writing of history is always subjective. As far as this season’s Primera Liga is concerned, one version will record that Real Madrid experienced such a dramatic decline under Jose Mourinho that the enigmatic Coach managed to negatively transform his all-conquering title-winners into a squabbling, ill-tempered, poorly performing collection of egos.
Another interpretation might be that the genius of Mourinho was such that, despite failing to capitalise on last season’s title-clinching 121 goals and 100 points, the Portuguese rose above it all to take the upper hand in their eternal rivalry with Barcelona, fire Real Madrid to a record 10th European Cup and, for good measure, win the Copa del Rey as well.
Those two trophies have yet to be secured, of course, but the past week has seen Real Madrid take the spoils in two Clasico encounters and beat Manchester United to advance to the Champions League quarter-finals. This season may already go down in history as one of Los Blancos’ worst domestic League campaigns in living memory, but Mourinho is hitting a personal peak just at the right time.
The poor and often scrappy performances put in on the pitch by Mourinho’s men this season have mirrored the turbulence off it. There have been moody Press conferences and alleged dressing room mutinies. Much of the campaign has been punctuated with reports of Mourinho’s impending departure, perhaps alongside that of Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Portuguese pair seemingly sharing mutual misery and discontent.
Reports of rifts with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas have rumbled on, been denied and rumbled on some more. The goalkeeper’s hand injury was said to be a fabricated mask to cover his deliberate omission by the Portuguese. Then there were rumours of an ultimatum by Ramos and Casillas to club President Florentino Perez – either Mourinho goes or they do.
Even in the home first leg against United, Mourinho seemed to be lacking his old spark, hesitating to make bold alterations or game-changing substitutions. Then two massive wins in the space of five days against the old enemy seemed to change everything. The old arrogance was back, with Los Blancos destroying a rudderless Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey before repeating the dose at the Bernabeu in La Liga, with a significantly weakened side disposing of the full-strength but still leaderless Catalans.
It was, then, a calm, restrained Mourinho overseeing Wednesday night’s elimination of United, in contrast to the combustible atmosphere around him at Old Trafford as Sir Alex Ferguson seethed and spitted over Nani’s debatable dismissal. The introduction of Luca Modric proved inspired, but there was no air-punching celebration, no knee-sliding down the touchline, just a dignified exit seconds ahead of the final whistle. ‘I’m still here and I’m very much in control’, is what his body language said.
Just when many thought he would walk away, Mourinho toppled Barca and then United, yet there was still no triumphalism. “The best team lost,” the Portuguese told the Press afterwards. “We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this,” he added before going on to praise Ferguson. “He is the best. He is the top,” said Mourinho of his vanquished rival, reaffirming his pre-match praise of the Scot. Was it sincerity, flattery or an unwillingness to rock the boat with a prospective future employer?
With these three big wins, Mourinho showed not only that he had regained control and reunited the dressing room, but that he has also set Real Madrid back on course for success. Even with La Liga an all but unachievable goal, a 10th European Cup for Los Blancos at Wembley in May would see his rehabilitation at the Bernabeu complete, restore the image of his immortality and, who knows, keep him on course to replace the man he admires so much.