Mourinho knocks Pep off his perch

Real Madrid didn't think they'd have to wait another four years as Barcelona formed the guard of honour to welcome them as champions of Spain, onto the rain lashed Bernabéu pitch. It was May 2008 and Madrid were feted by their main rivals before destroying Barça 4-1. The Catalans looked shot, their coach Frank Rijkaard a forlorn figure after the game.

The travelling media didn't grill him because they knew he was dead man walking. Instead, they felt sympathy for him. Rijkaard was not a bad coach, he'd been a great leader who delivered consecutive league titles and a second European Cup to Camp Nou. Everyone would remember the smoking Dutchman who looked more like an Ibiza DJ fondly, but his time was up. The fuse burns quickly in Spanish football management.

Outside the stadium, 80,000 delirious Madridistas spilled onto the Paseo de la Castellana (formerly the Avenida del Generalísimo Franco), a wide, leafy thoroughfare lined by skyscrapers in the heart of commercial Madrid, and headed towards the Cibeles fountain, the place where Real Madrid celebrate trophies.

Back in Barcelona, rookie coach Pep Guardiola replaced Rijkaard. The appointment, by a president (Joan Laporta) whose name, rather pathetically, is not allowed to be muttered by current Barça staff, was a masterstroke. Guardiola won three consecutive titles, two European Cups and more, much more, as Madrid were overshadowed in their own kingdom.

I sat five metres from Guardiola on last Friday when he announced that he was leaving after four seasons. He was knackered and couldn't go on. The journalist next to me wasn't a football writer but a published author "only interested in Guardiola". One wonders what he'll do next, but of Guardiola, the author said: "First he'll rest, then he'll spend time with his family, then he'll play lots of golf with Johan Cruyff, then he'll study the offers to return to coaching. He'll be back."


"He'd like to coach in England."

So why did he leave?

"For all the reasons he said - and then the unspeakable reasons. The players who started to drain his battery every day?"

"Such as?"

"Gerard Pique."


"I cannot say, but Cesc Fabregas and Daniel Alves have not been playing well, if they have been playing at all," he added knowingly.

Guardiola won't be missed at the Bernabéu because he battered them consistently for three and a half years, but the tide has turned and Real Madrid have been the best team in Spain this season, something they proved when they outclassed and defeated the Catalans in Camp Nou recently.

Madrid had hoped to win the league on Sunday and their fans sang 'Campeones! Campeones!' in the 3-0 win over Sevilla. The police erected the crowd control barriers by the Cibeles fountain too, but just five kilometres to the south, Barca delayed the inevitable celebrations by hammering Rayo Vallecano 7-0.

Tonight, Madrid are likely to become champions for the 32nd time. That's an average of a title every two and a half years, but there's been a significant gap before this one, by their standards. It won't be at the Bernabéu, but in the hostile environment of Athletic Club's San Mames. In Bilbao they loathe all things Madrid, home of the Spanish government. The Whites will be lucky to get a clap, even from some of the most sporting fans in Spain.

Athletic usually put up a fight against Madrid, but Marcelo Bielsa's side are exhausted. Winger Markel Susaeta has started 58 competitive games for his club (all 35 in the league, 8 in the Copa del Rey and 15 in the Europa League) so far this season. He's clearly a physical phenomenon and likely to start tonight, but forgive Bielsa and his fine side for concentrating their energies on forthcoming Europa League and Copa del Rey finals.

Madrid will be champions before they kick-off if Barca fail to beat a Malaga side set for a first ever Champions League appearance. They'll get the guard of honour bestowed to every new champions and the Cibeles will host the celebrations tomorrow night. The league will be over and yet Madrid will not relent and play weaker sides like Barca did in recent seasons. The Catalans had European Cup finals to concentrate on, while Madrid want to hit 100 points (which requires three wins from their final three games) and for Cristiano Ronaldo to retain his Pichichi. Like Lionel Messi, he has an astonishing - record breaking - 43 goals so far.

The world's best two players are not for relenting in this personal duel. Ronaldo feels like Messi has taken too much of the limelight, too many of the individual awards and he wants to get even, Messi wants to rescue something from what has ultimately been a disappointing end to a season which promised so much for Barça. The Catalans hope it won't be four years before they are champions again. They have €100 million to spend on new players, but now is not about them, but Jose Mourinho's champions elect. His task was to knock Barca off their perch. Once again, he's achieved what he set out to do.

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Barcelona v Malaga: LIVE at 19:00

Athletic v Real Madrid: LIVE at 21:00