The Special One’s Special Mission

Samuel Dieudonné explores the cult surrounding Jose Mourinho and his trials and tribulations as a Real Madrid manager. You may reach Sam on Twitter @dieudonnesam

He may not be an out-of-the-world manager, but Jose Mourinho is a proven winner across leagues, sitting pretty at the very top of the European football world – the Champions League.

Mission Impossible ?

To the men he interacts with at Real Madrid – players and coaching staff alike – the Portuguese boss is probably the epitome of managerial brilliance, controversial and unorthodox who through his cussed winning mentality has driven them along. Over the past year, since taking over from Manuel Pellegrini, Mourinho has emerged as a fatherly figure at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu; protecting his players from the vicious attacks of the Spanish media through general pettiness rarely expected from an experienced boss his age. At times his attitude has been hard to fathom. However, we would be naive to believe that the task of overtaking a well drilled Barcelona side – arguably one of the best there ever has been – wouldn’t come without its fair share of complications.

Having mused on that, I daringly pose the question:

Is too much expected of Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid?

To say that Mourinho morphed Madrid into the feared side they are now from scratch would be flawed. Yes, they have improved under him but the core of his team – Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Kaka and Karim Benzema, for instance, were already at the club during his predecessors’ time. These newly arrived stars, along with long-time club servants of the club like Raul and Guti, were expected to lead Real to unprecedented levels of success. Added to likes of Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gonzalo Higuain and, Marcelo Vieira, this squad was built to be feared for many years. However, instead of reposing faith in Pellegrini, who, to be fair, hadn’t done a terrible job in his one year reign Florentino Perez eyed the man who’d just won an unprecedented treble as Inter manager in Italy, after knocking Barcelona out in the Champions League over two hotly contested semi-final legs. There was no stopping Real Madrid now with this man at the helm.

In the midst of such massive hoopla, Madrid and its supporters somehow left Barcelona out of the equation – a side led by Josep Guardiola, playing what may be branded as scintillating football, without a hint of embellishment, prejudice, or bias. Questions about the fair play standards and of referee favours have been raised; nevertheless, they have set the benchmark for a Mourinho-led Real Madrid to attain.

Upon arriving in the Spanish capital, Mourinho got to work right away. Club icons like Raul and Guti were considered past their prime and shown out. Others like Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay and Dutch playmaker Raphael van der Vaart were deemed not to be fitting in his plans and subsequently sold. In came the German wizard Mesut Ozil and Argentine sensation Angel Di Maria to offer added craft in midfield. Sami Khedira came in to provide steel in the centre of the park and help Xabi Alonso in spreading play wide from the deep. Mourinho came with a dream and demanded the players to believe in his dream. He was given unconditional decision-making powers – Jorge Valdano was shown the door and Zinedine Zidane appointed as the first team director. Though not related to on-field activities, this incident preceded an immediate improvement in the league performance. It seemed that the club could contend for and  lift many trophies for the first time since Fabio Capello won the La Ligain 2007.

With his #1 weapon

Not everything should be measured in terms of Real Madrid vs Barcelona though. Apart from consistent and downright infuriating failures against them, Real have, slowly but surely, made tremendous progress under Mourinho. Defeating the rest of the Liga sides and other power houses in Europe appeared to be second nature. Cristiano Ronaldo started scoring hat-tricks at will; Ozil and Di Maria provided assists just as proactively as Alonso anchored the midfield. Karim Benzema had been transformed from a tame mouse into a devouring lion. Make no mistake, Mourinho had definitely made his mark and built a fearsome team. Progress soon thereafter was to become constant and notable.Little did Mourinho know though, that his worst nightmares were yet to come. Soon enough in the Clasico at Camp Nou he would be embarrassed like never before with a 5-0 thrashing. Barcelona had proven their vast superiority knocking Mourinho out of his comfort zone. For the first time in his managerial career, he had to contend with being the second best. The self-proclaimed Special One could not take it too well. How could such an experienced and illustrious manager allow this to happen? What hadn’t gone right? It really seems that he has been trying to sort that out in every single game against Barcelona since. That defeat instilled fear in the Madrid camp as their attempts to be adventurous had left them cruelly exposed to a merciless score. This marked the beginning of Mourinho’s over-reliance on an ultra-defensive system in every Clasico since then.

In Mourinho’s first season, Real Madrid disappeared early from the domestic title race. They failed to reach the finals of the Champions League, again thwarted by Barcelona, but won the Copa del Rey to save Mourinho’s job, beating the same foes. Though sharply contrasting in outcomes, neither performance was anything to rave about. But by winning a trophy – and more importantly beating Barcelona – Mourinho atleast kept the skeptics pleased whilst reminding them that if any manager could do it against this Barcelona, it was him. But once again hewould display signs of frustration – lashing out against UEFA for decisions which went against his side, over the two Champions League ties. In truth, however, Madrid were outdone by the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi. Playing as defensively as they had over those two games hardly helped them either.

The eye poke

There were positives to garner from that particular display though. For the first time Madrid had actually shown some courage to fight Barcelona blow for blow with an attacking approach. The Special One hadn’t gone with 11 players behind the ball as showcased previously. Real were not embarrassed. In fact, mixed with the disappointment there was a sense of excitement for the season ahead and what it would bring. This time round, Mourinho felt that there was an increasing need for new squad players to improve the team. So, in came Fabio Coentrao, Hamit Altintop, Raphael Varane and Nuri Sahin to bolster the squad.Then in the Super Cup matches early this season, Barcelona came out on top despite a spirited effort from Real. To fans and neutral observers alike, it was clear that Mourinho’s men were dominant over the two legs. However, once again the play of a certain Argentine maestro proved decisive when it mattered. Left fuming in frustration, Mourinho poked Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye. It was an act sent viral, jokes are repeatedly made about it, videos compiled on YouTube and even some computer game, was made on it. For a Real Madrid supporter, however, such actions were simply depressing.

Madrid started brightly once again – in fact, exceptionally. Playing better than Barcelona was no more a fantasy. It appeared the gap has finally been closed. The team coasted through the Champions League group stages with a 100% winning record conceding the least number of goals; only one team had scored more goals than Real Madrid (no prizes for guessing who). Real started the next Clasico, in the domestic league, with a six point lead over their arch rivals. There was a chance to get a nine point cushion to dispel all the doubts. But Mourinho opted to go defensively once more and was taken apart by a rampant Barcelona side resulting in a 3-1 defeat at home. Suddenly talks of crisis began to arise. Hardly necessary as the team moved on from the loss and continued to perform.

As fate would have it, Madrid drew their arch enemies once again in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey. A tie to be played over two legs. Many think Barcelona can only be beaten in a one-off knockout type clash. So, it was another chance to showcase the progress this team has made and just how far it has come. But, seemingly having learned precious little from previous outings, Mourinho chose to go with an overly defensive setup once again in the first leg at Bernabéu. Pepe was used as a destroyer in the midfield, along with Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra in a three-man midfield. Real managed an early lead through Ronaldo. But Barcelona dominated the game with the lion’s share of possession – over 70%. In the end, oddly enough, two defenders Eric Abidal and Carles Puyol,  found the goals to take a deserved victory back to Camp Nou with them. The media and supporters did not take kindly to the proceedings of Madrid dominating on their own turf; they opted to play defensively and took nothing away. Boos drowned Mourinho chants during the subsequent league match against Athletic Bilbao. The Special One‘s stock had suddenly gone down.

Coincidentally enough, days before the return leg away to Nou Camp, prominent Madrid daily, Marca ran a story about internal rifts in the squad. Supposedly Mourinho and Sergio Ramos had gotten into a heated exchange; where the player called into question his managers’ abilities and knowledge of the game. For the first time perhaps, a player had openly challenged Mourinho, who is noted to be a great man-manager. When questioned, everyone remained adamant that the squad was united and would fight to advance into the next round. Underneath the cover up, one suspected players were fed up with playing defensively and wanted to take a more offensive approach. The sentiment had been voiced before. It was up to Mourinho to respond accordingly.

And respond accordingly he did. Madrid played the best I have seen them in the last five Clasicos. In came Kaka and Ozil supporting Ronaldo and Higuain up front. The midfield was more fluent which translated into more efficient play. Pepe dropped back into defense to partner Ramos and Barcelona hardly got a sniff at goal as a result of their spirited performance. I saw ten players out there running for each other, concerned with defending a precious crest and more importantly fighting to win as supporters had been promised before the game. That display filled Madridistas worldwide with pride. They had actually gone for it with no fear, attacking fluently but remaining compact at the back too. I have no idea what convinced Mourinho to throw caution to the wind for once, but I am so glad that he chose to. Hopefully he he will have realised that having an attacking flair to the game is far more effective than playing 11 in behind the ball. It was a 2-2 draw that felt like a convincing victory owing to the manner in which the team played. You may argue that Barcelona was not at their best, which I shall begrudgingly concede but I prefer to feel that they had never faced Madrid at their finest either under Mourinho. After a long time, Barcelona finally experienced what it could be like to play a Madrid at the peak of its potential. It may never be a walk in the park again.

To answer the question I posed, I don’t feel too much is demanded of Mourinho but the time frame in which he has being asked to achieve that what is necessary is too short. Fans and management alike must show more patience. Madrid continue to make giant strides; the titles will inevitably come. Bearing in mind that Barcelona are undoubtedly the strongest team in the world currently, toppling them is a momentous task that even a manager of Mourinho’s calibre cannot guarantee within a set time frame.

A wise man once claimed: “The power of a bull is not measured at home, but in a foreign field.” Madrid are working towards being a stronger bull at home, and away to Barcelona and to all other sides which ill-fatedly cross paths with them. The progress made under Jose Mourinho is obvious. Real are on a special mission with the Special One – to dethrone the greatest team of their generation. One would be a fool to bet against that Portuguese making good.

La Liga – Mid-Season Review

With Barcelona trailing by five points behind Madrid, Villareal struggling to stay afloat and the miracle of Levante, a lot of changes are taking place in Spanish football. Sumit Sarkar reviews the primera division of La Liga so far

La liga kicked off on the last weekend of August this season, and if the kick-off did not get delayed by a week due to players’ strike, twenty clubs would have played each other once by the time this review reaches the editorial desk. The first round of matches got rescheduled on the third weekend of January, and as of now, each club has played 17 games. We reviewed the primera división of la liga in our September issue of Goalden Times and with only two rounds of the first leg remaining, it is a good time to take stock of the happenings so far. After seventeen rounds, the league table looks as follows, with Real Madrid CF on top, five points clear of FC Barcelona, despite being beaten handsomely in the El clásico.

Club

Played

Won

Drawn

Lost

GF

GA

Points

Real Madrid

17

14

1

2

61

16

43

Barcelona

17

11

5

1

51

9

38

Valencia

17

10

4

3

28

18

34

Levante

17

9

3

5

21

19

30

Osasuna

17

6

8

3

21

28

26

Málaga

17

7

4

6

20

22

25

Sevilla

17

6

6

5

19

19

24

Espanyol

17

7

3

7

18

21

24

Athletic Bilbao

17

5

8

4

23

19

23

Betis

17

7

1

9

19

22

22

Atlético Madrid

17

5

5

7

23

27

20

Getafe

17

5

5

7

17

23

20

Mallorca

17

4

7

6

15

22

19

Rayo Vallecano

17

5

4

8

19

26

19

Granada

17

5

4

8

11

21

19

Real Sociedad

17

4

6

7

16

23

18

Racing Santander

17

3

8

6

12

21

17

Villarreal

17

3

7

7

15

25

16

Sporting Gijón

17

4

3

10

16

29

15

Zaragoza

17

2

4

11

13

32

10

              Green – Champions League; Blue – Europa League; Red – Relegation Zone

The Title Contenders – the Usual Suspects Tangoing

Given the state of affairs in la liga over the last 6 years, it is no surprise that Madrid garnered a staggering 43 points from 17 games, losing only 2 and drawing only 1. Barcelona, the defending champions who have drawn six and lost only two games in the entire league last season, already have drawn five and lost one. In Spanish general elections held in November, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero lost the Prime Minister’s office to Mariano Rajoy. With power shifting from the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party to the Partido Popular – with whom the Blancos always enjoyed a harmonic relation – it is being said that the Barcelona era in Spanish football is nearing its end. Incidentally, on the last weekend of November, two weeks before the clásico, Barcelona lost to Getafe. Since the clásico of December 10, the talk about shift of power in Spanish football from Camp Nou to Bernabéu was shelved for the time being, but as the liga resumed on the second weekend of January, the whispers returned with the draw at the Barcelona derby.

Real Madrid is in an even better position than they were, at this stage, when they last won the title in 2007-8. Between 24th September and 10th December they had a winning streak of 10 games. They scored 61 goals in 17 games, averaging 3.6 per game. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 21 in 17 appearances, Gonzalo Higuaín 13 in 16 appearances and Karim Benzema 10 in 15. Ángel di María and Mesut Özil produced 13 and 8 assists respectively. Real Madrid is indeed playing awesome football, and to a plan.

Beating everyone else in la liga and beating Barcelona though, are two entirely different propositions. It’s been long since Madrid came to a clásico as favourites and they took the lead before the ball reached their half even once. In spite of the slip-up, which led to Madrid’s first goal 23 seconds into the match, Barcelona kept playing the ball to Valdes, and Valdes continued to play the short passes as confidently as ever. Barcelona not only defeated Madrid, but established the superiority of the brand of football they play. Barcelona completed 681 passes against Madrid’s 427. Barcelona’s brand of football is characterized by passing and possession. No team other than the Ajax of 1971-72 possibly has played this brand of football so consistently and so efficiently. Real Madrid is playing wonderful football this season, but the Barcelona era is far from its end. Barcelona, however, is not playing as well as they played last year. Their average possession has gone up by 2-3% this season. Since the Copa del Rey final in April 2011, they remained undefeated in 24 competitive games before their shock defeat to Getafe in November. During that period they defeated Manchester United, AC Milan and Real Madrid. But they have drawn away not only against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol, but also against Real Sociedad. They drew against Sevilla too at home. In the absence of Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez, the Barcelona attack has lost its width. Injuries to Puyol and Pique left the centre of Barcelona defence soft. If either of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets play centre back instead of their holding midfielder role, it doesn’t help the team. Pep Guardiola tried playing only three at the back, and it gave width in the midfield through Thiago Alcântara, and at times through Cesc Fàbregas. Nevertheless, the 3-4-3 formation is risky and leaves a hole in the defence. The absence of Andrés Iniesta is restricting the variety of Barcelona’s game plan. The dazzling form of Leo Messi is covering up a lot, but the problems exist.

European Contenders – Some Radical Shift

Valencia are at the third spot with 34 points after 17 rounds – 4 points less than Barcelona and 9 less than Madrid. While it may not sound surprising, let us not forget they were financially in troubled waters, and in spite of losing Juan Mata at the start of the season they are playing better football than they did last year. But some remarkable changes are taking place in Spanish football and that is reflected in positions 4 through 6 in the table. Villareal, who finished fourth last year are struggling to stay outside the relegation zone. Sevilla finished fifth last year and are hanging out there at seventh spot. Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid, who finished the last season at sixth and seventh spots respectively, are now at the ninth and eleventh spots.

The Levante Miracle

Who did Madrid lose to other than Barcelona? It was Levante Unión Deportiva – a club whose entire football budget for a season cannot pay Cristiano Ronaldo for more than half a season. The club that came up from segunda division and barely survived relegation last season, shot up to the top of the table on the eighth week of this season, and remained there for two weeks. Levante apparently defies all logic, but their achievement cannot be disregarded as fluke. A club in administration and a team with average age of thirty-two, they are at number four at half way through the season only because they played rationally. Being a team of mature players, they know their limitations and are well organized. Their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez applies a simple strategy – no pretences. They don’t try to hold the ball, they have a well-organized defence and they are swift on the counter attack. 36 year old Sergio Ballesteros, their captain, who on a few occasions outsprinted Ronaldo in the Madrid game, has been the inspiration for the team. After seventeen rounds they are at number four, ahead of Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and even high spending Malaga.

Osasuna

The club that brought Levante down from the top on the tenth round is now at the fifth spot – Osasuna, a club that finished ninth last season. They have drawn against Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Malaga, and defeated Espanyol and Villareal.

Project Malaga Paying Off

Malaga finished eleventh last year. They are a European contender this season and are at the sixth spot now. Their spending of €58 million in the summer will pay dividends if they qualify at least for the Europa league. Though they lost to Sevilla and Valencia and Real Madrid, among the bigger clubs of la liga, they defeated Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Villareal. Giving a 3-year contract to the ex-Real Madrid coach, Manuel Pellegrini looks like one of the best moves of Malaga boss Seikh Al Thani.

Newly Promoted Clubs

Real Betis moved up from segunda división this season and won their first four games, and was on top of the table in September. They played some good attacking football but lost their composure.  They are presently at the tenth spot with 22 points. Rayo Vallecano, who returned to the primera división of la liga after eight seasons and Granada, the club that returned to the top flight after 35 years are placed fourteenth and fifteenth respectively. Both of them scored 19 points each through 5 wins and 4 draws, but are separated on goal difference.

Relegation Zone

After seventeen rounds, the three teams in the relegation zone are Villareal, Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza. With only 10 points from 2 wins and 4 draws, Real Zaragoza, S.A.D., another la liga team in administration, are at a sad state and are at the bottom of the table with little chance of survival. Sporting Gijón lost 5 and drew 2 of their first 7 games. After seventeen rounds they are at the nineteenth spot with only 4 wins, but they can still survive.

Villareal – from European Contender to Relegation Zone

On the third week of the season, when Madrid lost to Levante in one of the biggest upsets of the season so far, Villareal lost to newly promoted Granada in another major upset of that round. With only 3 wins against Mallorca, Rayo and Betis, they are at the eighteenth spot with 16 points. Villareal more or less retained their team from the last season with the exception of Santi Cazorla, but they are nowhere near their last season’s performance. They crashed out of UEFA Champions League by finishing at the bottom of their group without earning a single point! If Giuseppe Rossi had not been injured, things could have been better for the Yellow Submarines. Nevertheless, with only 4 points separating 8 teams from the eleventh position through eighteenth, Villareal should be able to avoid relegation.

Two Spectacular Games

La liga may not be the most competitive league around, but surely throws up some incomparable games of football. Barcelona thrashed Villareal and Atlético Madrid, but drew 2-2 with both Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and goalless with Sevilla. The game at Bilbao, when Athletic Club hosted Barcelona in the eleventh week, was uncantoalfútbol (an ode to football) according to Pep Guardiola. In a spectacular display of fast end-to-end football, Marcelo Bielsa’s boys went up twice leaving it for Leo Messi to show his prowess on a waterlogged pitch to save the day for Barcelona at injury time. After Bilbao took the lead for the first time, Fàbregas headed in a cross from Eric Abidal to level the score. Then a Mascherano back pass went out of play and Bilbao scored from the corner as it landed on Abidal’s feet, and then deflecting against Pique, crossed the goal line. Already inside the injury time, Iniesta failed to hold on a pass from Messi. Bilbao keeper, Gorka Iraizoz also slipped. Messi finally slotted in the deflection. The game had it all – tactical twists, brilliant goals, awful misses, great saves, fouls and cards. Athletic Bilbao was intensely attacking, which is a signature of Bielsa.

Another extremely competitive game was played at the Mestalla between Valencia and Madrid. Madrid were up 1-0 at the half time, but they slackened in the second half. At 71 minutes, Ramos slotted in a header to put Madrid up 2-0. Then came the most dramatic 20 minutes of la liga so far. Roberto Soldado made it 2-1 but a Valencia corner was hoofed back to their half that Diego Alves tried to clear coming out of his box, missed, and Ronaldo scored from a difficult spot. Soldado scored another, which was the fourth goal in 11 minutes. In between, Mourinho had some heated exchange with Jordi Alba. At injury time, Valencia got a free-kick near the Madrid goal line. Tino Costa took it as the entire Valencia team was up there in Madrid’s box. Artiz Aduriz and Higuain collided and Higuain fell on the ground. The ball banged on the bar and rebounded to Soldado, and was rolling towards the goal when Higuain put his shoulder on its way. Valencia was robbed of a penalty and possibly a point. Had the referee given a penalty instead of a corner, the top of the table would have looked a lot more competitive at the winter break.

 Predictions

After the winter break, the league commenced with the Barcelona derby and the Valencia derby on the second weekend of January. Both the games ended in draws. Madrid easily defeated Granada and will play Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao in their remaining games in the first leg. Barcelona plays Betis and Malaga in their last two games of the first leg. Anything can happen and the league is wide open between Madrid and Barcelona. However, it is advantage Madrid at the moment. Valencia has an outside chance, but in la liga it has been next to impossible to cover a deficit of 9 points in 21 games. It will be good to see Levante playing in the Champions League – even if they play only the qualifiers. Between Osasuna, Malaga, Sevilla and Bilbao any two may qualify for Europa league. Villareal will survive, but apart from Zaragoza, any two among Sporting, Racing, Granada and Rayo will get relegated.