Even by his own high standards Jose Mourinho's latest masterclass was something special. Since Pep Guardiola took charge of Barcelona almost two years ago no team has beaten them by a two-goal margin – until Tuesday night.
Mourinho has done what Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson failed to do last season in the Champions League final and what Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini has twice been unable to do this season. Should he and Internazionale finish the job next week in Barcelona he will be better placed than ever before to replace either man, should the former bring forward his retirement or the latter fail to avoid being sacked.
"Mourinho closer to the Bernabeu," was how the Madrid sporting press greeted his latest triumph, Inter's 3-1 win at San Siro in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. While in Barcelona they fell back on old excuses about how European referees had not protected them and how Xavi had played over 80 successful passes, while Inter's best, Javier Zanetti, could not even muster 30, in the Spanish capital they revelled in the fact that someone had proved their great rivals to be only human.
In the past Mourinho has been a turn-off for many Real fans. They felt he was too brash and arrogant, a coach who lacked the class and dignity to be in charge of Real. Things have changed this season though. There is nothing dignified about spending £250m in the summer and then getting knocked out of the Spanish Cup by a team full of part-timers, as happened in November. And there is nothing classy about selling two of your best players, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, to major Champions League rivals, Inter and Bayern Munich respectively, and then watching as their new sides get to the semi-finals and you don't. Maybe it is time for a winner.
Also, if Mourinho's haughtiness is directed at Barcelona then Real supporters are starting to believe it would not be such a bad thing. His confrontation with Xavi in the tunnel on Tuesday – reminding the Barça midfielder that if he was talking about a scandalous refereeing performance then maybe he was referring to last season's semi-final against Chelsea – endeared him even more to Real supporters.
Phrases uttered by Mourinho after Inter's win, such as, "It wasn't a dream. What happened really happened," and "Sometimes those who win all the time just don't know how to lose," will almost make watching the remainder of the tournament bearable for the eliminated hosts of the final.
Winning over supporters sceptical about a style of football that, as Barcelona commentators yesterday complained, "puts winning before everything else" is now no longer the biggest obstacle to Mourinho landing the Real job. Madrid's age-old attitude towards coaches is.
At the Bernabeu the coach puts the cones out, picks up a moderate wage, answers to the sporting director and is never given anything longer than a two-year contract. Some progress has been made in recent years and the days of a telephone call from the president to the coach regarding team selection are probably gone, but Pellegrini earns just over €4m (£3.45m) a year and will be out in June if he fails to land the La Liga title.
Mourinho's salary is comfortably double that of the Chilean. The philosophy – why lash out money on a coach when it could be spent on a player – would have to be ripped up if Real are to go for the former Porto and Chelsea manager.
Mourinho's appointment would also have to spell the end for Jorge Valdano. The sporting director took charge of player recruitment last summer and is the first to a microphone whenever Real lose, openly criticising players and performances and giving limp votes of confidence to his coach.
"I never speak directly with the president [Florentino Perez], I just deal with Valdano and [Miguel] Pardeza" said Pellegrini this week in deferential reference to his "boss" and his side-kick who is yet another link in the convoluted chain that runs down from Perez to the fans that vote for him.
It is unthinkable that Pep Guardiola would admit to never speaking to Barcelona president Joan Laporta, and Mourinho would want all the go-betweens and unaccountable hangers-on to be swept aside, making way for the kind of direct line between chairman and coach that he enjoys at Inter with Massimo Moratti.
It would be a major change in how the club is run but maybe this year's expensive failures call for such a revolution. And one rather important person at the Bernabeu would certainly give it his full backing. Cristiano Ronaldo said of his fellow countryman last week: "I know him very well and I like him a lot. I know his character and he is a winner. He has shown that he is one of the best in the world and perhaps that is why people like him so much."
The part about Mourinho being a winner resounded even more clearly when he added: "We get very frustrated when we don't win anything. A club like Madrid has to win something every year." Jorge Mendez, the agent who took Ronaldo to Real in the summer also takes care of Mourinho and establishing discreet lines of communication between the club and the coach would not be difficult.
Mourinho has made no secret of his desire to win the title in each of Europe's top leagues. He won two at Chelsea and has already lifted one Scudetto in Italy with a possible second to follow this season if Roma's challenge can be withstood. Spain is next. The Barcelona job has already passed him by and secondary sides such as Valencia and Seville would have to strike oil beneath their pitches to be able to afford the salary and the transfer kitty he would demand. So Real remains his only serious option and now, if they win nothing this season, could be the moment to make his move.
Similarly good timing does not appear to currently apply to United. Ferguson will decide when he leaves and his successor will have the near impossible job of emulating him made even more difficult by the debt burden currently limiting spending.
Mourinho has never shied away from a challenge but neither is he daft enough to fight a battle he would probably struggle to succeed in – win the league at United, "Fergie did that". Win the FA Cup, "Fergie did that". Win the Champions League, "Fergie did that". Win all three in one season, "Fergie did that". At Real, by contrast, the battle would be slightly easier. "Just improve on six years of failing to reach the Champions League quarter-finals and do what you did on Tuesday – be better than Barcelona."
Reaction around Europe
El Pais Spanish newspaper: "Inter have made great progress. They are a team dressed to kill. Mourinho is a universal technician who has proven his formula to work in Portugal, England and Italy."
La Stampa Italy: "Mourinho's greatest work, the confirmation of how much this team follows him and appreciates his electric personality."
Corrierre dello Sport Italy: "Messi? Messi who? Instead we saw Milito, goalscorer and provider, we rediscovered the power of Maicon and confirmed Sneijder as the man of providence and Samuel and Julio Cesar those of prudence."
La Gazzetta dello Sport Italy: "Barack Obama promised Mars within 30 years – he'll be late. If Barcelona are Martians, Mourinho's team deserve citizenship of the same planet. This overwhelming Inter covered the great and widely feared Barça in black and blue lava."
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