Wednesday 21 March 2018

Victory is everything in collision of empires

Jose Mourinho's grand plan is doomed if he doesn't see off Barcelona, says Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

L ast Saturday night at the Bernabeu, the first stage of what promises to be a long war began.

Some of the Barcelona players were shocked by the attitude of Real Madrid players they knew and viewed as the good guys. One of the good guys spent some time whispering intimidating noises in the ear of players like Lionel Messi. He promised violent acts if Messi was to come out of his shell.

Barcelona play the game on the margins in their own way. They know their genius precedes them so they can manipulate referees and turn everything to their own advantage.

Jose Mourinho may have been legitimately enraged by this when he has witnessed it. He has certainly created a sense of aggression and determination in his team that stunned some Barcelona players in the league game last weekend.

By the time of last Wednesday's Copa del Rey final, they were taking things even further. Mourinho has spent so much time complaining about referees that it was no surprise that Madrid were incredibly fortunate to have 11 men on the pitch at the end. The Champions League games might see him return to his complaints about officials.

It will only be one front in the war. Mourinho could continue to let the grass grow in the Bernabeu and smother Messi entirely but his players are likely to continue with their methods.

Barcelona might have concluded that there is only one way to play but Mourinho's side are working on a suffocation policy that involves mental and physical torture. They may have won the Copa del Rey and smashed the cup but Mourinho's plan has just begun.

Victory on Wednesday night has, Mourinho claimed, relaxed his side. Certainly, it has shown them that Barcelona can be beaten, something only Hercules had managed to demonstrate before in Spain.

Madrid were always most likely to prosper in a one-off game. The two legs of the Champions League will be different but if they can take a lead on Wednesday night, those who condemn Mourinho for his unwillingness to entertain will need to be prepared for the apocalypse.

"This game confirmed that Jose Mourinho is a negative coach. He only cares about the result and doesn't care much for good football," Johan Cruyff complained before Madrid had even won the Copa del Rey.

Sometimes it seems like those who line up to criticise Mourinho are doing his work for him. If he wanted a message to give to his players, it would have ideally been delivered by blue-bloods like Cruyff, especially if they deliver a message that once again places Real Madrid, the greatest club in the history of European football, outside the mainstream.

Mourinho's process of disruption had begun. The goal, however, is the European Cup. Mourinho may have delivered a trophy but he may need to provide a bigger prize if he is to survive at the Bernabeu.

He has fallen out with many, most notably Jorge Valdano, Madrid's sporting director. Valdano, of course, has previously treated Mourinho's style of football with aristocratic disdain with the "shit on a stick" analysis of the Chelsea-Liverpool Champions League tie in 2007.

There is now a peace that can only be described as uneasy. Valdano described Mourinho as a "conqueror" last week and now Mourinho must once again display his ability to conquer.

He has dismissed stories linking him with a return to Inter Milan but if Madrid are knocked out by Barcelona in the next ten days, it is conceivable that Mourinho will be looking at getting back to England earlier than his meticulously detailed and often-delivered plan had suggested.

His repeated assertions about how his career will develop is central to the Mourinho story. He has projected a sense of certainty about everything long before the rest of football was convinced. He has been most certain about his own genius and if he can portray Real Madrid as underdogs, persecuted and harassed, then his belief in himself will again be merited.

Barcelona believe they are countering a philosophy. They believe in the superiority of their own.

"Whether you win or lose, the style is always the same," Pep Guardiola said after the defeat. "Playing attacking football is the only way I understand, it's our club's philosophy and I'm not going to change it. We are going to attack and to try and score goals at the Bernabeu."

Tiredness and injuries have slowed Barcelona down in recent weeks. Their 5-0 victory against Madrid in November was seen as this great side's most conclusive demonstration of their genius. The defeat on Wednesday demonstrated their weariness. They have been anointed in November but Barcelona have to prove themselves again in May as well as November.

If they are to defeat Madrid, the loss in the Copa del Rey will have to be used as a reminder. Yet, it may have simply placed doubts in their heads. They are strange doubts. They are the most compelling team of their generation, they are about to win another Spanish title and another European Cup is close.

If they get to Wembley, Barcelona will feel the European Cup is won. They will certainly think they have dismantled Mourinho's project and the summer will bring uncertainty.

"We have been lucky enough to live through something extraordinary in recent seasons," Guardiola says and nobody can dispute that.

Both sides now compete to do something extraordinary again. Barcelona's philosophy is designed to achieve the extraordinary; Mourinho's ego thinks extraordinary is his due.

Only a few dispute that now. He has the achievements but Barcelona has the pedigree. Mourinho will remind them of it in the days ahead if only to emphasise the shock and to underline his genius. Without victory, Mourinho has nothing except some clever lines. He knows this too.

He thanked Cruyff for his comments and he knows that his results make him compelling as much as his manner. For his pay-off lines to work, he needs to win. Bruce Willis wouldn't be able to pull off "Yippee ki-yay, motherf**ker" if he got shot in the head at the end of the movie.

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