James Lawton: Mourinho may be on brink of rebuilding Real into a miracle


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The Independent Football

Even when he was being called arrogant beyond reason, despicable in his bending of the truth and his Doomsday tactics and willingness to humiliate anyone who stood in his way, no one ever got round to saying that Jose Mourinho was setting up his own downfall.

It is probably just as well and especially today as Barcelona, who for some time have been some people's idea of the best team in the history of football, head for the Bernabeu. They will find in Real Madrid a team which has not only been brilliantly re-made but a coach who may well be just a few months away from arguably the most sensational achievement in the history of top-rank club football.

For such mortified Premier League heavyweights as Sir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini, so swiftly dumped this season into the half-world of the Europa Cup, the accelerating momentum of Mourinho's career must seem particularly miraculous.

As recently as late summer the Portuguese had, of course, in the view of many, crashed over the edge. In the shadow of Barça's latest Champions League triumph, and statement of football beauty, he had become more pariah than serial messiah.

His eye-jabbing stab at Barcelona's assistant manager Tito Vilanova left the rankest taste. His players said he was far too extreme. Real icon Alfredo di Stefano suggested he was brutalising the values of a great football club – and still finishing a poor second to Barça.

Now he has a cushion at the top of La Liga and the delicious possibility – even casual viewers of Real's record-breaking, 100 per cent march of victories through the group stage of the Champions' League might put it more strongly – of an achievement unique in what it would say about his ability to re-make teams at breath-taking pace and then lead them to the highest peak of the game.

At the age of 48 he is already one of just three men who can claim to have won Europe's greatest prize with separate clubs. One is the late and revered Ernst Happel, the Austrian football guru who delivered the prize to Feyenoord in 1970, against Jock Stein's ferocious Celtic, and then Hamburg in an upset win over Juventus in 1983. The other is Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won for Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern Munich in 2001 against Juventus and Valencia respectively.

They were impressive achievements by Happel and Hitzfeld but as a body of work composed under immense pressure, a considerable amount of it self-generated, Mourinho's now demand to be seen as awesome.

At Porto he produced a game of intense application and fierce sense of team and in 2004 it overwhelmed Monaco. Frustrated and soon enough undermined at Chelsea after two straight Premier League titles, he performed the impossible at Internazionale. He stopped Barça, not without certain amounts of good fortune it is true but with an insistent belief that he could challenge the artist-champions and neutralise their game. He likened it to parking a bus. It was more like digging a tank trap.

Now we have a degree of fantasy, a potential triumph of not just extraordinary will but a stunning capacity to change himself and his priorities under the most relentless scrutiny and unceasing controversy. Real Madrid is supposed to be the graveyard of coaches, the place where money and ego and madness – which among its various forms includes pre-season celebrations and Papal blessings at the great stadium – stretches a coach a little nearer to breaking point each day. But in the case of Mourinho it merely re-defined the scale of his challenge, and the means by which he would surmount it.

Our man in Spain, Pete Jenson, has already provided an admirably succinct analysis of the moves which have so transformed the galactico psychology that took hold after Zinedine Zidane's stupendous goal gave Real their last Champions League triumph in 2002. The adjustments have been about identifying new roles and strengths and have seen such as Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema play with increasing bite and authority – and Cristiano Ronaldo, marvel of marvels, discovering that he is part not only of a team but one which might just confound the football world by drawing new and utterly unforeseen limits on the empire of Barça.

For Mourinho, of course, there has never been a boundary he did not believe himself qualified to cross. Last year, before Inter defeated Bayern in the final, he was asked about his chances of joining Happel and Hitzfeld in their formidable club. He said his prospects were extremely good. He was, after all very young, and he added, "I expect to coach for another 20 years and I would like to win this trophy a few more times."

It is an ambition which we now have to believe beyond all doubt would be supported by every club in Europe.

Last summer it was thought that at Manchester United, where he had for some time been considered the natural successor to Ferguson, his stock had dropped dramatically, indeed to the point of oblivion. His style and some of his methods just wouldn't do. But that was before the dark magic once again turned into gold.

Disgrace of spiralling cost of ceremony

It is almost eerie that London is again required to host the Olympics at a time when even the most basic necessities of life have come under threat. However, the Austerity Games of 1948, most everyone who remembers them agree, were a triumph for the spirit of a nation that may have been unbowed by war but found itself so tapped out that a dinner of spam rissoles was considered by many something of a treat.

Yet what a triumph for spirit and decency and a reaffirmation of what gives life heightened meaning beyond the drudgery of mere existence those Games proved to be.

You couldn't help reflecting on this earlier this week when the Prime Minister huffed that he was unimpressed with the plans for next summer's opening ceremony and threw in another £41m of our money towards a better show for the pride of the nation.

What gut-wrenching "frivolity," as five-time Olympian Paula Radcliffe put it so admirably. She said that in such straitened times the money would have been better allocated to the development of young athletes. She might have widened her perspective by suggesting also that certain life-or-death matters like black holes in the NHS and scandalous neglect of child poverty and the elderly might also have had stronger claim on any spare cash than a little more circus and some extra burnt-out rockets and catherine wheels.

While still hoping for a memorable Olympics from which Londoners and the rest of the nation can take legitimate pride, some of us will always believe that the 2012 bid was fraudulent and would have been far more deserved by Paris, the capital of a nation whose investment in facilities for young sportsmen and women has long operated on a different and much superior planet.

The opening ceremony in Beijing was spectacular but was funded by vast and undisclosed resources and was part of a national plan which included the creation of a number of entirely new cities.

The allocation of extra tax funds for our firework show is pathetic. It is shaming in its cheap superficiality. So we just have to pray that the athletes and the people can make London 2012 something to be remembered with as much pride as those gallant Austerity Games.

Onus now on Rooney to behave

There is much dubious celebration over the triumph of the FA's massive operation to scale down Wayne Rooney's Euro finals suspension by one game.

Precedent was quoted and Fabio Capello could not have done more than own up that it was all his fault. It means that on the day of the Ukraine game Wayne has a duty to play his game and not behave like a petulant teenager. Is it too much too hope? In this respect precedent is not so encouraging.