Mourinho under huge pressure to deliver
Real Madrid v Manchester Utd:He would not say so, at least not publicly, but Jose Mourinho probably agreed with his captain. This time, they surely saw eye to eye for once, not least because they had to. “If finishing 25 points behind Barcelona in the league means winning the Champions League, I would sign now,” Iker Casillas said, exaggerating for effect. That was in December; two months later it could become a reality, simultaneously seductive and troubling.
Real Madrid are third, 16 points behind Barcelona. This has been a tense, conflictive and unsuccessful season – so far. Mourinho long since declared the league “impossible”. There remains a Copa del Rey semi-final, second leg but its importance is relative. What really matters is the Champions League.
Mourinho is a collector, acutely aware of his place in history. Madrid brought him here to do what he did with Internazionale: win the European Cup and defeat Barcelona. He came to do two interrelated things: win the league in a fourth country and win a third European Cup with a different team. No coach had ever done either; do so here and his collection would be unique.
In the first he was successful. Madrid completed a brilliant, record-breaking league campaign last season. Two semi-final appearances, against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, ended in defeat. In the second, he still waits. He may get a second chance elsewhere but this is his last opportunity here. For Madrid, too, it is symbolic: they have waited a decade for the decima, their 10th European Cup. It is starting to feel rather a long time.
Mourinho has not enjoyed Spain. It is hard to see how he can continue beyond the summer, or why he would want to. There have been too many conflicts, bridges burnt; the question is what the exit strategy is. The absence of one may be the only thing that can keep him here, where he has been unable to do what most defined him in England: build a strong, united dressing room and manage the media.
The Madrid-based daily Marca recently claimed that the club captains, Casillas and Sergio Ramos, told the president, Florentino Perez, that some players would leave if Mourinho continued. Covering the story for Mexican television, a journalist said it was “vox populi” that the dressing room does not get on with Mourinho, which might not have mattered if the journalist was not Casillas’s girlfriend.
Her remarks, widely criticised, confirmed the tension that had already emerged but many, including Perez, had tried to deny.
The goalkeeper’s relationship with the coach is uneasy. Much of the media has turned on Mourinho too, often viciously and indiscriminately so – and at least in part because they have felt “freed” to do so. And, although he has unconditional supporters, Mourinho has been whistled at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The absence of Casillas with a hand injury may even be beneficial, removing a focal point of tension, an alternative source of power. This competition will define this season and probably Mourinho’s period in Spain. From the start of this season, the Champions League was the priority; now, it is everything. But then, in a way, it always has been: this is the trophy that defines Madrid, the one on which their identity is constructed.
When Madrid won their seventh, eighth and ninth European Cups, they finished fourth, fifth and third in the league, never close to the title. The European Cup eclipses all else. It was true back then and it’s true now.