Under-fire Mourinho to gamble on Ronaldo
Tottenham Hotspur could be forgiven for feeling they are intruding on a wake when they turn up in the royal half of Madrid today.
For, as Real Madrid's whitest cheerleading organ, Marca, pronounced like some gloomy official proclamation on its front page 'Adios Liga. Adios record', the mounting feeling here was that it may yet end up being a mere prelude to 'Adios Jose'.
At a club where they have always been happy to turn the most minor drama into a crisis, you could swear you could hear the sound of knives being sharpened, perhaps ready to be plunged into Jose Mourinho's aura like never before following both the end of the Special One's nine-year, 150-game unbeaten league home run and, surely, of his interest in claiming his seventh national league title in eight years.
Suddenly, Real's six, maybe seven, games in April loom as the greatest examination yet of a gilded career of practically uninterrupted success.
All the talk here has been of Mourinho's future, of his hints of returning to England and of him winning power battles with sporting director Jorge Valdano, but if he succumbs in these huge games, including possibly four against Barcelona in 15 days, his future will be written for him regardless.
His studied air of insouciance after the 1-0 defeat by Sporting Gijon here could not hide his dismay, doubtless cemented in private later by watching Barcelona's giddy lads celebrating the win at Villarreal which puts them eight points clear and practically certain to bag a third straight title.
Mourinho talked about his side being unlucky but, inside, must have been as alarmed as those Bernabeu regulars who felt this weakened side bereft of creative juices and a cutting edge -- the ingredients known primarily as Cristiano Ronaldo -- had just produced their worst performance of the season.
It was so poor that even if bringing back Ronaldo with his thigh problem tomorrow is a gamble, it actually looks like a must. "The decision of risking it belongs only to him and to me. I may risk it," said Mourinho.
Bank on it; it is an SOS to Ronaldo which may spell Save Our Season.
Mourinho did accept his fate with some dignity as he went to the visitors' dressing-room to offer congratulations and even saluted Gijon coach Manuel Preciado, who earlier in the season, in a verbal bust-up, had dismissed Mourinho as a 'canalla'.
The best translation of that, apparently, is 'scumbag' and a reminder of how there will be many here now revelling in Mourinho's discomfort.
Real will be bolstered by the return of Xabi Alonso, suspended for Saturday's match, and Gonzalo Higuain, who feels sharper after playing his first half an hour in four months since his back surgery, but the side will not look too dissimilar to that which against Gijon laboured miserably up front and were absent-minded at the back. Alvaro Arbeloa, for one, had a woeful night.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are eight points clear at the top of La Liga after their 1-0 win over Villarreal, with Gerard Pique's 66th-minute strike enough to give them all three points at El Madrigal.
In Italy, AC Milan put a dent in the Leonardo revolution at city rivals Inter by cruising to a 3-0 derby win that reasserts their authority on top of Serie A. Alexandre Pato scored a goal in each half for the Rossoneri who moved five points clear at the top of the table, with Antonio Cassano scoring a late penalty to complete the job.
Fresh from his goalscoring performance at the Aviva Stadium last Tuesday, Uruguay star Edinson Cavani scored a hat-trick for Napoli as they came from behind to beat Lazio 4-3 in a cracking match that lifts the Neapolitans into second.
In Germany, Borussia Dortmund may have wobbled recently, but they returned to form to keep their drive towards the Bundesliga title on track by coming from one down to beat Hannover 4-1.
Bayern Munich beat Borussia Monchengladbach 1-0 thanks to Arjen Robben's strike, while second-placed Bayer Leverkusen kept the pressure on with a 1-0 win over Kaiserslautern. (© Daily Telegraph, London)