Mourinho's back against the wall
Jose Mourinho was not amused when Michael Essien, sitting alongside him on the dais, told a febrile press gathering: "Daddy is always happy. I've never seen him sad." It was meant to be supportive.
Instead, it accentuated the sense of the Real Madrid manager as a tragic figure with two games to save his job.
Who's the daddy? Not Mourinho. Not any more. The last time he was knocked around by uncontrollable forces like this was at Chelsea, when the oligarchical thumb of Roman Abramovich turned downwards and hero of the Shed was fired.
Mourinho left Stamford Bridge with his dignity intact and moved on to great things with Inter Milan and Real. But no longer is he the master of his own story.
The drums at the Bernabeu beat out a consistent message. If Real are knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United then Mourinho's enemies in the dressing room will have their wish. His brilliant career has been an exercise in power. But his urge to control great institutions has a growing whiff of Don Quixote. Abramovich would not submit. Real Madrid and its changing room of dukes will not agree to unconditional obedience.
Alex Ferguson found a great club and made it his, establishing his authority through force of personality and success. Without that rolling success, his charisma would have been dashed on the rocks. Mourinho can never hope to inhabit such a world. He cannot make the overlords of the Bernabeu bend to his will. If the most powerful players turn him against there is only outcome. Never mind, daddy. The label they will hang from his neck is lame duck.
Essien's patriarch has been briefed against and challenged, most notably by Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, the injured goalkeeper. Real are not even the No 1 side in Madrid. They sit 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and four adrift of their supposedly inferior neighbours Atletico.
Intolerable shame is, thus, heaped upon the royal house. Yet there is still one hope of salvation, of vindication for Mourinho. To clear United out of the road now would revive memories of his European victory over Ferguson with Porto and his many Premier League wins with Chelsea.
One day, surely, Mourinho will become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs. To reach that pinnacle with a team who have turned against him would be stunning redemption.
His demeanour, though, is wounded, besieged. You can see him feeling for the exit. He greeted questions from English journalists warmly, but our Spanish colleagues were not encouraged to join the interrogation.
To the English reporter who asked him about his "crisis" he said: "Are you aware of my crisis? I don't think you are. I'm not (in crisis). It's easier for you to get the press conference to end and then you can talk to all the guys who write the stories. Have a good dinner with your Spanish colleagues and they'll tell you all the stories they write."
But are the players behind him? Big smile: "They're in front of me. I'm on the bench, they're in front of me."
The Champions League is Real Madrid's consuming mission. More particularly they crave win No 10, which has assumed an almost religious significance. With Cristiano Ronaldo to the fore, Mourinho goes along with this obsession. He has to, because La Liga is now beyond him. Yet he is also using Europe to stake out his personal ambitions and to defend his own fine record in the competition.
"There are great clubs in the world who have never won this," he said. "Great managers, too. Real Madrid have won nine, I've won two. Both myself and Real Madrid are privileged. I want to win my third, Real Madrid want to win their 10th and I will strive to achieve that. If it comes this year, good. But I don't think I will end my career with two Champions League titles."
The purpose is clear. Mourinho cannot let this two-match trial begin without telling Real Madrid he will be fine without them; that his march on history will continue, preferably back in England, which will be his "next move." The surety in his words points to preliminary discussions. First, though, there is important reputational work to be carried out.
Mourinho cannot disguise the fact of his defeat in the man-management department. He has fallen out with plenty of players before now, but only as individuals, not as a cabal. This time a convincing league win turned bad within months. Real regressed into factionalism. This is bound to affect the way the industry sees him. No longer is he the safest appointment in elite football.
So, for the first time in his career, there is a hint of pathos to his work. He tried hard to convince his audience that he is still enjoying himself without quite succeeding. Wayne Rooney being called a hooligan by Marca was no big deal, he joked, because he himself had been called "worse." He seemed to be saying: look what they've done to me, look what I have to put up with.
So many people have tried to climb inside Mourinho's mind that analysing him psychologically ought to be a ticketed event. Before we were transfixed by his success, his Machiavellian hold on events. Now we count the ways in which his authority is diminished.
To save his job he now relies on a magician nurtured by Ferguson at United and then sold to Real for £80m. What sits between Mourinho and the sack is the brilliance of Ronaldo. Power has slipped from daddy's hands. (© Daily Telegraph, London)