It will be his masterpiece if he finishes it, so it's only right that Jose Mourinho has had to suffer for his art. The toppling of Barcelona will maybe hang one day alongside his other great works – Chelsea's first league title for 50 years, Inter's first European Cup for 45 years – and it will be remembered as the one that nearly broke him.
It's nearly four months since he put his finger in Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova's eye with that touchline tantrum that had even his most ardent apologists cringing. And it's a year after he suffered his worst defeat when he lost his first Clasico 5-0, becoming only the second Real Madrid coach since 1945 to lose by such a heavy margin against the old enemy.
But ahead of tomorrow's showdown Mourinho is looking special again. There have been changes on and off the pitch. The smile has replaced the scowl and he spends more time in the dugout and less in the opposition's technical area. He has stopped ranting about referees and winding up opposing coaches to the point where he was delivering their team talks for them. His team has matured and can stand up for itself without the need to have anyone fighting its corner so aggressively. Memories of the toothless team performance last November remain clear. "We beat Ajax 4-0 in Europe and then three days after, Barcelona beat us 5-0," Mourinho remembered on Wednesday night after watching his side complete the most impressive Champions League group stage campaign of any team in the competition's history – six wins and a plus-17 goal difference. It was a club record-equalling 15th straight win in all competitions for Mourinho.
Even fresher in the memory than that 5-0 are the two Spanish Super Cup encounters at the start of the season. The image of Mourinho walking up behind Vilanova and poking him in the eye is one of a man going too far in the pursuit of victory.
There was a sense that Mourinho was poisoning everything and instead of the bravado rage steeling Madrid and reinforcing the group, it was actually motivating opponents and sapping the strength from the players it was designed to bolster.
Several of them stepped forward to voice their discontent. Much is made of a team barbecue that Mourinho organised at the end of September. The barbecue was an outward show of unity that followed behind closed-doors discussions between senior players and the coach. The manager troubled by recent results – a defeat and a draw away to Levante and Racing Santander – and the players concerned by their leader looking drained and without his usual spark.
Other players echoed the general sentiment that making enemies at every turn was helping no one. It was a lesson that Mourinho had begun to learn last season.
The "us against the world" philosophy that served him so well in the past was having the reverse effect in Spain. He accused Sporting Gijon coach Manuel Preciado last season of fielding a weakened team against Barcelona.
Preciado is a much loved figure in Spanish football and personal tragedies have increased the affection for him. Mourinho doesn't need enemies like that.
This April when further tragedy struck and Preciado's father was also killed in a road accident, Mourinho called his old foe to offer his condolences. It wasn't just a token gesture. The two men spoke for 20 minutes and it was Preciado who made the call public.Reuse content