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Thursday, 14 April 2011

El Clasi-coach

Amid the almost plaintive geeing up from the stands at White Hart Lane, Real Madrid fans at one end of the ground could be heard bellowing Jose Mourinho’s name. Forget that 5-0 humbling, forget the eight point gap at the top of the league. Forget that Mourinho’s proud unbeaten record at home (nine years incorporating 150 matches) was demolished by a team currently 11th in La Liga. Forget that four clasicos now await us in the space of 18 days. Madrid fans now believe that a team so comprehensively battered by Barcelona can become its superior in Europe.

This is unquestionably Mourinho’s favourite time of the year. This is also his favourite way of operating. While we all get carried away with the prospect of seeing four matches involving Spain’s top pair, the likelihood is that the Portuguese will see only two.

A popular truth about Chuck Norris/Jack Bauer, depending on which arsey gobshite Facebook page you go on, is that they do not sleep: they wait. Mourinho, obviously, does sleep, because he is real and Chuck Norris isn’t. But where others watch, he learns. As the climax to the mini-series approaches, Mourinho, like a kind of weird tactical Gandalf, should also be most powerful.

It would be incredible, and disastrous, for Real to lose to Barcelona four times. But such is the obsession with the European Cup at Madrid, the first two matches – a league fixture on April 16 (Saturday) and the Copa del Rey final on April 20th – are surely little more than practice runs. Pep Guardiola, no tactical slouch himself, will have to be on his toes as you can bet your life Mourinho will be trying all sorts as the real business of the Champions League semi-finals approaches.

Before Inter’s victory over Barcelona at this stage last year, Mourinho had taken them to Camp Nou in the Champions League group stages in December 2009 and lost 2-0, having managed to snuff out the Catalan’s goal threat at the San Siro three months prior in a goalless draw. In the four games across the season, Mourinho lost both away matches but his side only conceded once to Barcelona at home.

Such defensive fortitude might be beyond Madrid this time. Ricardo Carvalho’s yellow card at White Hart Lane means the centre back will miss the first leg of the tie at the Bernabeu, though he will no doubt return for what will be another significant rearguard action should Madrid get their noses in front ahead of the return trip to Catalonia.

The matches at the Bernabeu, starting with Saturday, will be pivotal and at the moment are the only unknowns surrounding the context of the matches. Most believed the league fixture would be the second half of a title decider that began with Barcelona’s emphatic victory. Domestically, its significance has lessened. But it is a massive chance for both managers to land an early blow. Barcelona, clearly, can make a real statement of intent. Mourinho and Real Madrid will learn plenty about the job in hand – depending on how they approach it. Mourinho will doubtless have ideas about how to beat Barcelona and may use the opening salvos to explore his options. Should he happen upon a formula, if he hasn’t already, a fascinating few weeks await.

At risk of a shellacking, I’m going to stick my neck out and say Barcelona only have one way of playing football, much vaunted and adored though it rightly is. Mourinho has options; has a large squad to play with. The renaissance of Karim Benzema has given Real renewed potency which they didn’t exactly lack with Cristiano Ronaldo, Mezut Ozil, Angel di Maria and now Emmanuel Adebayor to call on. Kaka has returned to the side. Ronaldo, for all he has come off second best in the tiresome, forced comparisons with Lionel Messi, is still capable of unexpected genius. Real have a chance.

Mourinho’s task is no less significant whatever his record in Europe and the immovable object may have come too soon for him to shift. An inherited group of galacticos is not exactly a team immediately disposed to fostering the unwavering group spirit one associates with a Mourinho side, though there are signs that it is growing (witnessed in both legs against Spurs). He has certainly made them more resilient defensively. Moreover, it’s a fairly foolish man that bets against Mourinho over a two-legged tie. It will be fascinating to find out if he has made his charges resilient enough to prosper at the expense of the Barca behemoth.

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