Real Madrid were highly fancied to win
this season's Champions League from the outset. They were second favourites
long before they topped the tournament's toughest group containing Milan, Ajax
and Auxerre with five wins and a draw from six games.
They kept clean sheets in five of those
matches, early evidence that Jose Mourinho was fixing a sometimes suspect
Second favourites before they overcame
their last-16 curse and finally progressed to the last eight for the first time
in six attempts by overcoming a Lyon side they had been unable to beat in six
previous encounters. And second favourites before they hammered Tottenham
Nobody celebrates being second
favourites in Madrid, because once again Barcelona's shadow looms large. The
Catalans are favourites to lift a third Champions League in six years at
Wembley next month and any ideas that Jose Mourinho's new Madrid are close to
restoring parity with their greatest foe were blown apart by November's 5-0
But Madrid have been tipped to finish
above sides like Chelsea, Manchester United and Milan who have achieved far
more in recent seasons on the continent than the Spaniards. Their multitude of
world class talents is the main reason, but the presence of Jose Mourinho as
coach is probably more compelling.
Mourinho's expensively assembled side
are still coming together. Key players like Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Ricardo
Carvalho and Sami Khedira have been at the club for less than a year; Cristiano
Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso less than two. But they are
gelling very well.
Worries about their recent injury
problems were overplayed; the reality is that Ronaldo, Kaka and Gonzalo Higuain
all played against Tottenham. In-form Benzema was missing, but Mourinho's
insistence that another striker was brought in during the January transfer
window paid off as Emmanuel Abebayor scored their two opening goals against
Spurs before leaving the field to a standing ovation as he was replaced by
crowd favourite Higuain. There was opposition from powerful figures within the
Bernabeu to Mourinho bringing in another striker, but now it appears to be
Mourinho cleverly claims that the
Tottenham tie is not over because: "I know English football well. It's not
over, in another culture I would say yes, but with the English culture it is
He also states that he's happiest in the big
moments and has a track record to support his boast. He creates a level of
confidence among players unseen by Madrid's many, many coaches in recent years.
Those players genuinely believe he can take Madrid to a much-heralded 10th
European Cup success.
Saturday's surprise 1-0 league loss at
home to Sporting Gijon was Mourinho's first home league defeat in nine years.
It all-but relinquished the title to Barcelona, thus allowing Madrid to
concentrate on two cups: the Copa del Rey final against the Catalans in
Valencia on April 20 and probable Champions League semi-finals against Pep
Guardiola's side at the end of April and start of May.
Mourinho has played and won the internal
political game at the Bernabeu. He keeps the club continually on edge by
speculating that his next job will be in England - probably as a replacement
for Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, should the Scot ever relinquish his
Mourinho is a collector and wants to win
the Champions League with an English team following his successes with Porto in
his homeland and Inter in Italy. But first he wants to win it with a Spanish
club. He has made much progress in a promising first season, but his greatest
obstacle is a longstanding domestic one: Barca.
If Mourinho fails to overcome Barca in
either the Copa or the Champions League then he will be judged a failure.
Harsh, but true - because that's how high the bar has been set. Mourinho has
every confidence in overcoming the Catalans, even if he plays the anti-football
that Inter deployed to triumph last season.
It may not be
vintage Madrid if he has to resort to negative tactics, but almost everything
could be sacrificed if it means besting Barcelona.