By Sam Lee
It’s been a few weeks since 90 soccer last cast an eye towards the Santiago Bernabeu, and a lot has happened.
And in all that has gone on, a common theme was evident. Behind all the goals, results and controversies, Jose Mourinho was pulling the strings. Only he wasn’t just the puppet master lurking in the background, he was centre stage. From Pedro Leon’s last-minute equaliser in Italy to the dogged win over an even more dogged Sporting Gijon, the Portuguese boss revelled in the limelight.
The game against Milan was supposed to be his first true test as Madrid manager, and he almost failed it. Due to their domestic dominance (Barcelona aside) and unprecedented expectation this season, most of the matches Madrid play can only really be considered tests, or otherwise, in hindsight. All too many times a game has been billed as ‘Mourinho’s first examination’, only for them to win comfortably and the search for a suitably tricky opponent extended.
Up until the 68th minute in the San Siro, it looked as though that search was to go on. Indeed, as the clock ticked over from 66:59 Madrid were controlling the game and passing the ball between the midfield and centre backs without a care in the world. A few seconds later, Filippo Inzaghi had notched his 69th goal in European competition after a slip from Pepe and a massive error of judgement from Iker Casillas. A few minutes later, Inzaghi grabbed his 70th euro goal after Casillas hastily rushed from his line and the striker nicked the ball underneath the embarrassed ‘keeper.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Mourinho was about to taste his first Madrid defeat in the stadium he made himself a hero with Internazionale, albeit in front of a very different set of fans. He reacted as he did when his side were a goal down to Hercules the weekend before, bringing on an attacker, Pedro Leon, for Pepe. In the last minute, Leon was played in cleverly by Karim Benzema, and a point was snatched. Not only that, but they qualified from their Champions League group as winners.
Before the match, Mourinho was snapped holding up three fingers to Milan fans; one for every trophy he won with their rivals last season. Afterwards, talk turned to the two players who rescued the draw, Benzema and Leon. Mourinho’s influence over the two was clear. After all, he had brought Benzema ‘back from the dead’ if you believe Marca, (you shouldn’t generally, but they may be on to something here), while Leon was fresh from being knocked down a few pegs by the Portuguese coach for a lack of effort. By the way, Leon’s first action on the pitch was to help Sergio Ramos in defence.
If that game wasn’t the test, then the Madrid derby surely would be, wouldn’t it?. It wasn’t. Early goals from Ricardo Carvalho and Mesut Ozil gave the hosts an early lead at the Bernabeu, and that was that. Just as countless teams have learned over the years when facing a Mourinho team, if you go a goal down, you’ll be going home empty-handed. Atletico were killed off, just as Milan should have been. Mourinho claimed in the build-up to the match that derby matches do not excite him, and are just like every other game. So it proved over a largely uneventful, and extremely comfortable, 90 minutes for his side.
A few days later, Madrid swept aside Real Murcia 5-1 after the third division club had ground out a goalless draw in the first leg of the Copa del Rey clash. Always one to take cup competitions seriously, Mourinho was less than impressed with a number of refereeing decisions and ended up being dismissed from his technical area, although not too far. Instead of going up into the directors box or down to the changing rooms, he opened a small gate and sat in a supporter’s seat next to the bench.
The dismissal saw him handed a two-match touchline ban, meaning that he would be in the stands for last Sunday’s trip to Sporting Gijon. He would remain center of attention. Back in September, Manuel Preciado’s Gijon side went to Barcelona and rested 10 first-team players. They may have made a labouring Barca sweat for their 1-0 win, but Mourinho was less than impressed. Asked how many points Madrid would need to win the league, he answered: “the league is Barca’s. If that happens a lot, it will be very hard.”
Sporting initially let the comment go, but not a second time. Perhaps feeling he would be marginalised by his ban, Mourinho decided to reopen old wounds a in a radio interview last week, insisting that Sporting should be punished for their selection, comments that did not go down well on the north coast.
By kick-off on Sunday evening, Mourinho was welcomed by a number of less than polite banners and chants, and his team were met with as ferocious a performance as they will face all season. In the end, it took a late tap in from Gonzalo Higuain to separate the teams, while a smart save by Casillas immediately afterwards ensured the win. The goal was again created by a reinvigorated Benzema, who was introduced for a below-par Angel Di Maria on a night where many a Madrid player failed to make an impact.
In the car park after the game the Madrid team bus was leaving for home, just as Preciado was making his way to his car. Mourinho greeted the Gijon boss with a two-finger salute.
“I don’t know if it was a V for victory or a 2 for the Second Division, but I can imagine,” Preciado said.
According to Marca, the fiery manager reacted by making a testicle-based gesture and throwing a bottle at the bus.
Whatever the truth, Mourinho’s impact has been made. His Madrid team are showing the same characteristics of his previous successful charges; quality, solidity, determination and a never-say-die attitude. Off the pitch, he’s not just ruffling feathers but he’s wringing the bird’s neck. Talk of tests will come and go on a match-by-match basis, but only when the trophies are handed out will you be able to gauge the Mourinho effect.