Tired of Real Madrid against Barcelona? Don't worry, there is a new show in town – Real Madrid against Mourinho. It made its debut at the weekend and it should run until the end of June. It is not expected to be back in the autumn.
Ahead of tonight's second leg quarter-final of the Spanish Cup against Barcelona, Jose Mourinho was asked yesterday if he was happy at the club. "Mmm" was his reply, accompanied by a brief nodding of the head. He isn't.
The dream of becoming the first coach to do the "grand slam" by winning the English, Italian and Spanish league titles is alive and well. Real are five points clear and have scored 67 goals – a Spanish record for the first half of the season. But that counts for nothing at a club who have hired and fired 30 times in the last 30 years.
Two defeats by Barcelona in the space of a month have helped reopen the wounds inflicted the last time the club faced their foe twice in quick succession. The damage done by the Spanish Super Cup defeat festered for a while but a run of 15 straight victories lifted everyone.
Last week's Spanish Cup first-leg defeat brought all the bad feeling to the surface again in a squad accused of being torn into two camps – the Portuguese-speaking players who defend and are defended by their coach and the Spanish internationals who don't and aren't. "I don't create cliques," said Mourinho yesterday, almost inadvertently confirming that they exist.
Sergio Ramos said last night: "The relationship with the coach has always been good, Mourinho remains the ideal coach for Madrid, and we are content with him." That came after the club's second captain had been summoned by president, Florentino Perez, on Monday to report on the mood in the dressing room. That the president chose to confer with a player and not the man he pays to manage the players may indicate that the point of no return has been reached.
Last Friday, a row between Ramos and Mourinho revealed another crack. "Where were you when [Carles] Puyol scored?" Mourinho asked the defender. Ramos had been told to mark Puyol. His reply was that he had decided to swap with Pepe; that sometimes during a game the players know best; and that Mourinho would not understand because "he had never been a player".
Worse than the argument having taken place was the fact that it found its way on to the front page of Marca the morning before Real's home match on Sunday. The leaking of it suggested a deliberate plan to undermine him. There is the possibility that the club itself may have played a part in the information reaching Spain's top-selling daily.
Madrid must score at least twice tonight and Mourinho could pair the attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil and Kaka, who have won eight of the nine games they have started together. "Pepe will play if fit," Mourinho revealed yesterday.
Will tonight mark a before and after in his relationship with Real? "I'm not answering that," he said. Could it be that win, lose or draw, too much damage has already been done for the game to change anything?