José Mourinho was tasked by Florentino Pérez in May 2010 to knock Barcelona off their perch.
Last Wednesday, as the players held the Portuguese aloft at San Mamés, he had achieved that target. Real Madrid have now won 32 league titles in their glittering history. But few, if any, have come at the expense of a rival of such potency.
That’s because few sides in the history of the game match up to the Catalans. To hoover up trophies as Barcelona have done under Pep Guardiola is something remarkable, and while many will focus on the style with which they achieved their success, less have looked at the hunger, the drive, that underpinned that. This year, Madrid’s hunger was insatiable, and this is why they are champions of Spain.
It’s been a bumpy ride for Mourinho. Discord within and without the camp have threatened to undermine the meringue challenge at key moments. Sometimes, internal grievances have received the most public of airings. At others, the vitriol of the press- many of the same Madrid-based ones who painted Mourinho as a saint before the bruising four game clásico series in April 2011- have latterly been queuing up to throw rocks.
At times, it seemed certain he would be departing at the end of this season. Few now doubt that he will stay. And if Madrid have bagged this title with considerable style, it is worth looking at some of the key factors behind their success
1. Benzema’s renaissance
José Mourinho had spent most of his first summer at Real moaning about the lack of strikers. When injury on the eve in that infamous 5-0 defeat at Camp Nou ruled Gonzalo Higuaín out for some 5 months, the cupboard was bare. Karim Benzema was a flagship Florentino Pérez signing, but the manager didn’t like the look of the young Frenchman. Nor was he impressed by his attitude. “When you don’t have a dog, sometimes you have to hunt with a cat”, he lamented. Rather than hunt with this cat, he signed Emanuel Adebayor on loan.
This season, Benzema has been a man reborn. Right from those two ferociously intense Supercopa clashes that opened the season, it was clear that he’d come back determined, and a few kilos lighter. Given his rival for the centre forward position’s numbers, supplanting Higuaín in the role is some achievement. His blend of finesse and physique has given defenders nightmares.
2. Sidelining Ricardo Carvalho
It might sound counterintuitive at first. For almost a decade now, Mourinho’s former Chelsea and Porto lieutenant had been one of the world’s top defenders- and one of the smartest. In his first season in Madrid, he had clearly been the top dog. But maybe time was catching up with.
Although initially an enforced move, moving Sergio Ramos to centre has made Real Madrid a better team. The Spain international may be guilty of positional lapses, but his athleticism allows Real to pressure much higher up the park than they could with Carvalho. Alongside Pepe, his aerial dominance has been a massive asset.
Last year’s title was not lost in the clásicos- it was lost in defeats to lowly sides like Sporting and Osasuna, games where Real Madrid failed to score. Last September, the loss at Levante followed by a draw against Sporting suggested it might be more of the same again. Instead, they went on a run of wins extending all the way to the visit of Barcelona in December.
That clásico blew the title race wide open once more. Madrid’s capacity to respond would be everything.
They won their next ten games, as Barça shed further points.
Their ability to come back has also been a standout factor. Victories from losing positions against Rayo, Atlético, Mallorca, Athletic, Zaragoza, Levante, Sporting and Sevilla spoke of a side for whom that defeat was not an acceptable outcome. Real have beaten teams in a variety of ways this season, but it is this attitude that has helped them over the line.
We’ve mentioned Benzema already. He now has 20 league goals. Despite his limited minutes, Higuaín has chipped in with 22. José Callejón has sprung 5 goals from the bench, many of them crucial in changing games. No full back has scored more than Marcelo. And only Lionel Messi has scored more than Cristiano Ronaldo’s 44. With David Villa injured, Barcelona have been overly dependent on Lionel Messi. Ronaldo may be equally totemic to his side, but it’s clear that his colleague also know the way to goal. In all competitions, the trident of Ronaldo-Benzema-Higuaín have contributed a staggering total of 117 goals.
5. Put up- and... shut up
Just as in Italy, the press in Spain have been Mourinho’s bête noire. So charming and adept was he at pulling strings and setting the news agenda at Chelsea, it may be hard to fathom the antipathy that now exists between him and the media. But Milan, as Mourinho swiftly found out, is not England. And Real Madrid is a club like no other.
In his recent book, Graham Hunter illustrates just how badly Mourinho had misjudged matters a year ago. Puffed up by his side’s Copa del Rey final victory at the Mestalla the previous week, he went on the warpath against Barcelona’s coach ahead of the Champions League semi-final. Guardiola, a man so eloquent and dignified in his public persona that it almost seems painful for him at times, decided he’d had enough. The gloves were off. In a masterpiece of rhetoric, he responded to his rival’s jibes in the most forthright of manners.
More importantly, his team did the business on the pitch. For what good are words when you can’t back them up?
Ever since that moment sections of the Madrid-based press were out for Mourinho, and well he knew it. After all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not all out to get you. Last weekend at the Santiago Bernabéu, Sid Lowe explained just how poisonous the relationship had become.
“It seems clear now that the initial agenda- at least from Marca- driven as ever some sections within the club, was to build José up as being the saviour. AS [the other principal Madrid sports daily], on the other hand, whose editor Alfredo Relaño has great admiration for this current Barça, always had a slightly different take. In the end, attending the post match briefings was joyless. At times, the prospect of dealing with Mourinho had become tense, to say the least. Sometimes, even the most innocuous of questions would draw a caustic and utterly dismissive response”. In the end, Mourinho chose to see agendas at play everywhere.
This is why the aftermath of their 1-1 draw at Villarreal marked a key turning point. For the second game in a row, Madrid had surrendered a lead to a late free kick. And not for the first time in recent weeks, they’d played well below par. Moreover- and at this point is worth noting Jorge Valdano’s words on Cadena SER that, if anyone had any right to be aggrieved, it was Villarreal- the officiating had infuriated Real.
Fitness trainer, Rui Faría, had been sent to the stands in the first half. In the immediate aftermath of Villarreal’s equaliser, he was followed swiftly by Sergio Ramos, Mourinho himself, and Mesut Ozil of all people. Madrid had lost their heads; lost their papers, as the Spanish phrase goes. Their lead had been trimmed from 10 to 6 points. And their season was in danger of falling apart.
Then, something unexpected happened. We waited for the denunciations of Mourinho. And waited.
In vain. For in his place came the number two, Aitor Karanka. The following weekend, the Basque former defender did the same. And every other week. In fact, outside of Champions League briefings, we’ve not heard from Mourinho since. Until, of course, last Wednesday. Mourinho had let himself down and been badly burned in his dealings with the press at the climax of last season. This year, he’d learned his lesson.
Sometimes it’s best to shut up. But you also have to front up.
Mourinho has done both.
You can follow Joseph @josephsbcn
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