How Jose Mourinho's wrath becomes a force that unites players
Coach argues with his squad and somehow achieves the result of a happy dressing room
It is the pervading sentiment at Real Madrid this week as they prepare for the arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson's team – United at last.
It sums up the relief at finally being back in Champions League action and out of the nightmare that is their La Liga season where they are still a mammoth 16 points behind Barcelona, who won 6-1 yesterday.
And it encapsulates a new-found togetherness completely absent in the first half of the season when manager Jose Mourinho seemed to be taking on his squad one player at a time. By chance or design the fact that almost no one has escaped his wrath seems to have bonded the dressing room more than at any time since he took over two and half seasons ago.
Captain Sergio Ramos said after Saturday's 4-1 win: "We are on a good run. Asides from the defeat to Granada [nine days ago] we have put in some of the best performances of the season. Now we have the important one against United and we are convinced we can get through."
Ramos was dropped earlier in the season for being off-message after a defeat to Sevilla. Mourinho had declared: "I don't have a team", after the defeat and Ramos complained that this was no time to be blaming people.
Ramos was also in trouble for wearing a message to midfielder Mesut Özil under his Madrid shirt supporting the German who had been publicly criticised by Mourinho. Angel Di Maria has been accused by Mourinho of only playing well until the renewal of his contract; full-back Marcelo has been singled out for not keeping his fitness levels up as he returned from injury, and Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín – disappointing in a side that before the weekend had scored 54 goals compared with 75 at this point last season – have also had the finger of blame pointed at them.
But old gripes that Mourinho has been selective in his criticism have not stood up as the Madrid manager has taken on all-comers. He rowed with Ronaldo in the dressing room after a 2-0 Cup win over Valencia, as Spain defender Raul Albiol confirmed.
He has criticised Portuguese full-back Coentrão and has been unhappy with fellow countryman Pepe, who chose to have an operation on an injured ankle at the end, instead of the start, of the winter break. No one has been spared and that, plus a general understanding that the intensity of three Mourinho seasons will end this summer with him leaving, has Real Madrid looking like its old self.
The weekend win saw Ronaldo take his goal tally for Madrid to 182 in 179 games – Real's strength on the break will make it of the utmost importance that Manchester United don't concede first. Something made more difficult by the first leg being in Spain.
Ronaldo is one of a handful of players who know they will start against United. Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Özil were rested on Saturday and will be in Mourinho's XI. Angel Di Maria and Marcelo were also left out, though it is not clear if they were dropped or in storage for this game.
As well as a more united squad Mourinho also has a healthier one with more options than at any time so far this season. With the impressive young French defender Raphaël Varane fit again after a thigh strain only goalkeeper Iker Casillas is unavailable. And even that seems to play into the hands of the Mourinho. He wanted a keeper signed at the start of the season but was told he could not bring in Roberto from Zaragoza. Casillas' broken hand rules him out of both games against United and meant the club had to sign Diego Lopez from Sevilla, who is more dominant in the air than Casillas.
Asked after the Sevilla win why Real Madrid had been so inconsistent, Mourinho's No 2 Aitor Karanka said: "We have not been as motivated as last year because of the position we find ourselves in the league. The game against United is important and we will be at our best."
Barça's Gerard Pique said there is little between Madrid and United, where he played between 2004 and 2007. "They are very evenly matched. Madrid are playing very well again and United are clear in the Premier League. Because of my past I would like United to get through. Rio [Ferdinand] tells me that the dressing room is in good spirits. It will be a very special tie between two great teams."
It is 11 years and 10 coaches since Madrid won the Champions League, and the players know they could be the first to win 10 European Cups.
"Games against United are special" says Ramos. "In many ways United are to the Premier League what we are to La Liga." That's hardly the case this season. But neither United's advantage in the Premier League, nor Real's embarrassing deficit in Spain, will count for anything on Wednesday.
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