It was the tie everyone wanted to see, apart from perhaps Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese tactician, busy alienating all around him in Madrid it would seem, is under pressure like never before. It is rare for Madrid or Mourinho to throw in the towel as far as the title is concerned before Christmas, but that is exactly what they have done after last weekend’s 2-2 draw at home to Espanyol. With Barcelona crushing Atlético Madrid, it leaves little doubt as to where the La Liga trophy will end up at the season’s end.
That is why Madrid would have been particularly disappointed yesterday to be paired with Premier League leaders Manchester United. Sure, Madrid can beat them, but there were easier ties in prospect for the Spanish giants. And whilst the draw is on the face of it, another reunion between Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot said he'd have to order some good wine for his friend's visit, but he should probably keep the order on hold for now - there are plenty of doubts as to whether the Portuguese coach will still be in his position when the tie comes around next year.
In principle, Madrid would surely rather he was. It has emerged that they are set to dispense with his services following a series of disputes inside and outside the club this season. If reports are to be believed, he has argued with their youth coach, with the press, his own players, other players. Last weekend's result was particularly telling. Afterwards, Mourinho said: "It is the first time that I have been in a situation like this where my team are a long way off their objectives." It was striking that he chose to say that the team were off "their" objectives, rather than "our", whilst he also added that whilst Cristiano Ronaldo had played well, his team mates had not. Added to the deteriorating relationship he is enjoying with the board, this betrays the fault lines at the Bernabeu at present. Unlike in England, he does not have an indulgent British press who are happy to embrace his controversial public persona. But Mourinho, with his record in the Champions League, is the perfect man to help them chase down ‘La Décima’, their search for a 10th European crown. Having won the ninth a decade ago at Hampden Park, they are desperate to bring back the trophy again from Britain this season. Mourinho too is desperate to be able to be called the first coach to win the trophy with three different sides.
Yet the big question is, will Madrid continue to put up with his antics until then? The biggest problem is the split between himself and key players. Last season it was made very public that there was a rift between himself and Sergio Ramos, as well as Iker Casillas. That has emerged again this year, with Ramos putting on Mesut Ozil’s shirt under his own as he sat on the bench after the German was admonished by Mourinho. Mourinho’s attacks on some of his players are unusual for a coach who wherever else he has gone, has fostered a tremendous team spirit and looked to deflect criticism from his players.
Unlike everywhere else however, Mourinho is not the man who turned these Madrid stars into winners. Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in Madrid with a Champions League under his belt. Casillas, Ramos and the other Spaniards had all won the European Championship and have claimed the World Cup too. Many were there under Fabio Capello when they won the title in 2008. Chelsea had little history of success before Mourinho came in, so the players idolised him for making them winners. The same thing happened at Inter Milan. Yet at Madrid, the players knew how to be winners, and they did not seem to like Mourinho’s way.
Now he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far. He is desperate to leave Madrid as a Champions League winner. They are desperate for that too. Yet will his relationship with his players allow him to remain in charge to make that dream a reality? Only time will tell.