Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Real Madrid's Copa del Rey win proves Mourinho is in a class of his own

It no longer matters, if really it ever did, how we view the nature of Jose Mourinho, whether we see in him pure magnetism or a force of diabolic manipulation.

Like him or loathe him, every one of his critics – including the august Alfredo di Stefano – is now required to face up to the central reality of his existence.

It is in that in the matter of shaping any football situation to his own advantage, of implanting belief in players where little or none existed before and diminishing those they have to face, he has graduated ever more confidently into a class of his own.

This, once again, was evident in the frustration he imposed on the team so many have chosen to elect, if with absurd haste, to the status of the greatest club side in the history of football.

Barcelona, for the second time in a few days, looked so much less than this when Mourinho's Real Madrid carried off the Copa del Rey in Valencia with a 1-0 win on Wednesday night.

Di Stefano, official keeper of the Real legend, growled against the man he claimed had presented his old team, once the unchallenged rulers of Europe, as a mouse to be toyed with by the Barcelona cat. Then the great man was obliged to watch an ultimate example of how some football games can be won in the mind of a coach who continues to display the practical instincts of a natural-born street fighter.

Inevitably, Barça aficionados are insisting that the Spanish Cup is the merest of minor baubles and that the real business starts next week in the first leg of the Champions' League semi-final. Yet presumably they saw the expressions on the faces of Barça coach Pep Guardiola and demi-god Lionel Messi. They were not those of men who had lost an argument over a trifle.

No, they were much more reminiscent of those that came at the Nou Camp this time last year when Mourinho's Internazionale dumped them out of the tournament which they had come to believe they owned.

It may have been that Barcelona, with some justice, believed they had stripped down the demonology surrounding the man who had contrived their downfall this week with the scale of the brilliant 5-0 victory earlier this season. Yet in the Mestalla Stadium, as at the Bernabeu last weekend, the demons, a whole squadron of them, were surely back in place.

Of course the result did not lift the football soul in the way of Barça's great performances. It was a lock-picking exercise, probing and pragmatic and at times quite viciously cynical, and if you want to claim this is just another way of saying the Special One parked his bus once more, you're obviously within your rights.

But the faces of Guardiola and Messi spoke of more than a problem of finding a way past an immovable barrier.

There was nothing static about the way Real struck out for victory in the move that came like a suddenly released spring, a superb interchange between Angel di Maria and Marcelo, a perfect cross to the thrusting head of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Barcelona could claim harsh luck when their own Messi-inspired masterstroke was ruled out by the narrowest of offside decisions but less easy to make was any suggestion that at times Real had not seriously dislocated the certainties of their rhythm.

Messi still showed some of the best of his talent but increasingly he was forced back from those areas where he most easily inflicts his deadly pace and skill and at times even Andres Iniesta and Xavi hinted that they may have shed some of their certainties.

For many of Barça's warmest disciples it was Inter all over again. More precisely, though, it was Mourinho going about that work which, whatever success he has found – and now he has won prizes in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain – will probably always provoke the same question. Is he good for any other cause but himself and those clubs who, whatever their traditions, decide that his promise of success entirely on his own terms outweighs all other factors?

Di Stefano raised the fiercest objection, saying that Mourinho's football was a betrayal of the meaning of the club he helped so hugely to win the first five European Cups, but such reservations were scarcely apparent in the Mestalla. Mourinho was thrown into the air by his players and feted by the hierarchy of Real. An enemy of football, some say, but not, you can be sure, in Madrid for some time.

Nor in Old Trafford, where we are told support for Mourinho as the natural successor to Sir Alex Ferguson has reached landslide proportions. It is still more evidence that beautiful football, as represented at United by Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson when they were operating at some of their peaks of their club's playing resources, is no longer an ultimate priority separate from the pursuit of guaranteed success.

Now in Spain, a place which is generally never short of dramatic symbols of good and bad, we might just be seeing the death agony of such football idealism. Di Stefano, no less, has cast Mourinho in the role of spoiler, the man who will settle for less in the hope of winning it all. Guardiola, by the sharpest contrast, is something of Don Quixote, charging the windmills, rescuing the embattled damsel of unsullied football.

In the process the Barcelona coach has, perhaps inevitably, been lionised and his team over-praised. Not so much in the moment, because their football continues to promise extraordinary aesthetic delight, but in the sweep of football history. However, it was hard not to revisit at the Mestalla this week the questions that came with such force at San Siro and the Nou Camp last season.

Would the great teams of Milan and Ajax, not to mention Di Stefano's Real, have been so resolutely distracted by the cunning devices of Jose Mourinho?

Naturally, he beams his pleasure at such speculation. It is, after all, another notch on the belt of the man who believes, maybe as never before, that he has the means to conquer his world. He is unconcerned if we take him or leave him, as if we had any option.

Belfast Telegraph


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