“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
While the connection between HBO’s The Wire and Jose Mourinho is tenuous at best, watching Omar slaughter Stinkum and maim Wee-Bey is eerily reminiscent of the mauling at the Camp Nou. As Wee-Bey limps away from the scene, hurt and humiliated, it is not hard to imagine that the pain of the last El Clasico burns almost as badly as a bullet to the leg. Pep Guardiola is hardly as menacing as Omar but some Madrid fans would happily have dropped Sergio Ramos a la Stinkum themselves after his insane dismissal. And now with not only the second league fixture but the Copa del Rey and the possibility of encountering each other in Europe Jose has to do what he has managed at every other club he’s been at: do something genuinely special. After all, as Juande Ramos said, Madrid brought in Mourinho to beat Barcelona “because we [himself and Pellegrini] were beating everyone else.”
But, as recently pointed out by the excellent Equaliser blog Mourinho seems to be ever more morose and dark in his press conferences. The accusation was that the man who used to come out with quotes that would have the British press swooning in the aisle like bridesmaids as the male model of a groom walks by “now come[s] across only as...a very bitter man.” There is no denying that there have been problems between The Special One and The Special Club.
The story goes that Mourinho and President Florentino Perez were walking around the Bernabeu and Perez stopped by the trophy cabinet and remarked that he missed the European Cup. Mourinho replied that so did he and he had only won it several days ago. After Jose made the Nerazzuri’s triumph over Bayern Munich ever so slightly hollow by jumping ship to Real Madrid there was a collective pulling together round Europe. Fans of all affiliations got the sense that finally, after six years of not getting past the round of 16, Madrid were back. They had the team, they had the money and most importantly they had the man. The man who wins wherever he goes. The man who has been unbeaten for nine years at home now. The biggest winner, the best manager, the man who’d beaten Barcelona. Mourinho and Madrid seemed like a match made in heaven.
But there is no club quite like Madrid. Or at least that’s how Madridista’s see it. And all the achievements happened at lesser clubs. You may have two Champions Leagues but we’ve fired del Bosque and he’s done that and got a World Cup as well. The fact is that Madrid have already sacked better managers than Mourinho. Pellegrini led Madrid to their best season ever in terms of points and was sacked. Vincente del Bosque won the Champions League and got sacked.
The image of Mourinho that we remember from his time in England was a youngish manager with a wry smile, cracking jokes, making outrageous claims and crushing the competition. That man seems to have vanished beneath a surly siege mentality that stems from being asked to do the incredible. Because everywhere Mourinho has been he has done so. Delivered the real deal. At Porto he won a Champions League that (on paper at least) he had no right to win. He then brought Chelsea their first league title in fifty years, never mind all the other domestic trophies. Finally he took Inter Milan to the Promised Land. And, unlike the Porto victory, Inter winning was no fluke. Jose out-thought all comers to lift the trophy including, vitally for Madrid, the seemingly-invincible Barcelona side.
While many people are irked by the arrogance and audacity of calling yourself The Special One, there can be no doubt that at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan Mourinho did do special things. At Madrid there is only one special thing he can do. Beat Guardiola’s Barcelona. And not just in a one off match. Madrid are now ten points behind Barcelona, albeit with a game in hand which is due to be played tonight. A win at the Bernabeu in the league won’t make up for the five goal thrashing. Madrid need to beat them in something that matters. The Copa del Rey would be nice but to save their season Madrid need to win the Champions League or be the ones to prevent Barcelona winning it. Over two legs, on the biggest stage, Mourinho needs to prove his specialness again. There are two games against Barcelona left, with a potential two more should the meet in Europe before the final. If Mourinho doesn’t manage something special against the Golden Boys in at least one of the cup competitions left then his reputation, built over nine years of trophies and home brilliance will take an astonishing beating.
The pattern has always been Barcelona chasing Madrid. Even when they won titles, they weren’t Madrid and both sets of fans knew it. Liverpool might not have won a title in 20 years but until Manchester United drew level on league titles, the fact was both knew who was the most successful club in England. Even now United lag behind on the European stage and it burns. But, like Cruyff’s side briefly, Guardiola has altered the dynamic. Now Madrid have the complex about striving vainly to beat Barcelona. And the pressure on the players and on the shoulders of Mourinho is a crushing weight unlike anything before. Nobody thought Porto could win the Champions League. Chelsea never had the true expectations of champions before the Portuguese arrived and Inter were never supposed to be able to go all the way. Jose has delighted fans because he does what they dare to dream might just happen. At Madrid he has to do it because it’s what is demanded, not what is dreamed of. What is dreamed of is not something that can be done.
Mourinho has been given some time and leeway because he is perceived as special. But as Jorge Valdano explained to Simon Kuper Madrid is a club constantly in search of a lost identity. A footballing version of the American Dream where Alfredo di Stefano still haunts the minds of Valdano and Perez. The two men yearn to rewind time and recreate the glory years of Madrid. The club that was the best, had the best players and played to best football in the world. The club that was indisputably the club. Bringing in Mourinho is part of the vision but the utter humiliation earlier this season was unacceptable. It wouldn’t have happened in di Stefano’s day. So the fact is that however special The Special One is, he isn’t as special as di Stefano. Whatever he achieves is never going to be good enough for men who have a fixation with the club of their fathers.
Mourinho is going against Guardiola and that is already a titanic battle. I will tell my children that I saw those El Clasico games. That I saw Messi and Xavi and Ronaldo and Kaka. But Mourinho can beat Barcelona on the pitch. He can never beat di Stefano. Because di Stefano would have done it better. At Real Madrid di Stefano is the king and when you come at the king, you best not miss. Except this time, the king can’t be hit.