Saturday 24 February 2018

Madrid fans singing Mourinho's name once more as Clasico double provides belief that Old Trafford can be silenced

Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 1

Ian Chadband in Madrid

Fresh belief is sweeping through Real Madrid at the most ominous moment for Manchester United.

Belief among the players that they have at last conquered their Barcelona complex while playing their best football of the season, belief that they have the finest player in the world in their midst and, above all, renewed belief in the wiles and wonders of Jose Mourinho.

What a difference a couple of Clasico triumphs make. Three weeks ago, before the match with Seville, the Bernabeu greeted Mourinho's name with a few jeers mixed into a brew of distinctly lukewarm appreciation.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, though, as his largely second-string side put paid to Barcelona for a second time in a week, the cries of "Mourinho!" once again rang out with the acclaim which suggests Madridistas are now convinced he is the one to silence Old Trafford again tomorrow and then deliver the fabled Decima, that 10th European Cup.

As the team flew into Manchester last night, it felt as if there had been a sea change in the team's mood. Mourinho now has a policy that he will only front up to talk here when his side have been beaten so he has been blissfully quiet of late, having overseen just one defeat in 15 matches this year.

So it was left to his sidekick, Aitor Karanka, to articulate the feeling in the camp.

"It's clear that these two games over five days are the best we have felt all season," Mourinho's ghost said. "Now we just move on with more motivation and, if possible, with a lot more desire. This makes us stronger."

It appears that way. The internal bickering and politicking has, for the moment at least, evaporated and Mourinho, so often at loggerheads with key players in a troubled season, seems to have once again forged the 'all for one, one for all' mentality again which characterised his best sides at Chelsea and Internazionale.

Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who has been sidelined with a hand injury, will rejoin the squad tomorrow to lend his invaluable experience.

"We have shown that we are a group and that we fight until the end," boomed Pepe, whose inspired performance in a converted holding-midfield role in Saturday's win was another demonstration of how adept Mourinho is at tactical shuffling.

Ultimately, it felt almost symbolic that it should be Sergio Ramos who began and ended the triumph, first making the interception which led to Karim Benzema's sixth-minute opener and eventually soaring to head home an 82nd-minute winner.

Ramos was, after all, one of the key figures who has fallen out with Mourinho, but here he sounded nothing less than a loyal lieutenant, enthusing: "Psychologically, these Clasico wins have strengthened us as a unit and we go to Manchester convinced we will go through."

It helps, naturally, that Cristiano Ronaldo continues to play like a god as he prepares for an Old Trafford homecoming.

He may not have scored for once but it was his dazzling spark when introduced with half an hour left that transformed a meandering affair.

"Cristiano is the best player in the world and always stands out above the rest," said Pepe, in what felt like an unspoken dig at Lionel Messi, who, despite having netted his 50th goal of the season, was upstaged. Even Diego Maradona, an interested spectator at the Bernabeu, wanted to be pictured with CR7 afterwards.

Barcelona remain 13 points clear of Madrid, so a successful defence of the La Liga title remains out of reach for Mourinho, yet this still felt like a watershed for him, having achieved two successive Clasico wins for the first time in 17 games with Barcelona over three seasons.

At last, with Barca's season giving the impression of being in freefall under the so-far uninspiring hand of caretaker coach Jordi Roura, it feels as if he has broken a mental stranglehold. It prompted Karanka to recall Mourinho's first Clasico, the 2010 trouncing at the Nou Camp, which truly seemed to hallmark Barca's greatness under Pep Guardiola.

"The 5-0 really hurt," he said. "That season we had difficulties in the following matches. Now it's different; the team is much more confident and calm."

How ironic it would be if Mourinho had finally mastered Barca in what has been increasingly seen as his farewell season.

Alex Ferguson is among those who believe that to be a dangerous assumption, suggesting over the weekend: "I'm not certain Jose will leave. I don't think Florentino Perez, the Madrid president, would want to let a good coach like that go."

He may be right, but Mourinho's future and his entire Bernabeu experience, one suspects, could yet be defined by one night in the Theatre of Dreams.

"He's done a great job at Real Madrid," said Ferguson.

Maybe, but defeat tomorrow and the end of another push for that elusive 10th European crown would swiftly end Real's current giddy high, spelling surely only divorce and ultimate failure for Mourinho. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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