As if failing to beat Barcelona in their last seven home games against them and losing the last three "clasicos" were not enough, Real Madrid fans were yesterday recoiling at the thought that while their rivals have the world's most adored player... they have the world's most abhorred.
Pepe stamping on Lionel Messi's hand was the enduring image of Real Madrid's latest capitulation against their great rivals and the latest in a long line of the Portuguese international's crimes against football. Even by his own low standards his behaviour had been, as Madrid-supporting paper Marca described it yesterday – "embarrassing".
Pepe last night apologised but claimed his actions were "unintentional". He said: "I wish to say yesterday's incident with Leo Messi was unintentional, but I nevertheless want to apologise to him if he was offended because all I do is defend my team and this institution. I give my heart and soul, and the thought of hurting a colleague has never entered my mind."
The first-half yellow card for a late lunge at Sergi Busquet's ankle was predictable – it was Pepe's eighth card in 11 games against Barcelona. He could argue it goes with the midfield ball-winning territory to which he had been assigned. But his feigning injury to the face, after a brush with Cesc Fabregas in the second half was pitiful and his stepping on Messi's hand just plain cynical. The fact that Messi made less of the stud marks than Pepe had earlier made of the non-existent contact between him and Fabregas left him looking even worse.
When Wayne Rooney tweeted "what an idiot" he opened himself up to accusations of not being in a position to judge. But while his hot-headed moments come in the heat of battle Pepe's madness is calculated and badly calculated at that – serving neither to intimidate the opposition nor to inspire his team-mates.
A poor man's Puyol would be a generous description of a player sent off five times in his Real Madrid career. The Barcelona captain possesses all of Pepe's aggression but channels it into scoring crucial goals, making saving tackles and winning matches. He has now gone 51 games since being on the losing side for Barcelona and is unbeaten in the Bernabeu in three years.
The worst thing about Pepe from his manager Jose Mourinho's point of view may be that, all losses of discipline aside, he is just not good enough. Not good enough to justify the close to €30m Real Madrid paid for him in 2007 nor for the sizeable contract extension Mourinho's pleas helped him win last season.
When employed in midfield, that long Patrick Vieira-like stride helps him cover the ground but the gallops forward rarely finish with an incisive final ball and defensively, for all his athleticism, he remains chaotic and inconsistent.
He was dozing four minutes in to the second half when who else but Puyol ghosted in front of him to head Barcelona level. Pep Guardiola's side had got nothing from their previous 196 corner kicks this season. Thanks to Pepe's concentration failure they had broken that dry run.
Pepe was banned for 10 games in 2009 for kicking out wildly at Getafe's Javier Casquero in the penalty area as his opponent lay on the ground, and then swinging a punch in the resulting mêlée. He was protected by his club who took no internal action against him. Asked if action would be taken over the stamp on Messi, Mourinho replied: "If it was deliberate then yes." He was too busy fuming at the goal Madrid had conceded due to Pepe's error to put up any greater defence of his player.
"Pepe treading on Messi was senseless and lamentable," said Xavi. "When the ball is in play then you can say 'well that's football' but when the ball has gone it is unacceptable. Someone should take action," said Puyol.
Mourinho could at least be grateful that some of the fall-out from yet another defeat against the team he was specifically hired to overcome was focusing on Pepe not being fit to wear Real Madrid's famous white shirt and not on whether he was fit to out-think Guardiola.
In nine games against him Mourinho has only won once, drawing three and losing the other five. Most alarmingly things are not getting any better. He has lost the last three and it's conceivable that he will lose the next two as well – with those games being the return leg next week and the next league game also at Camp Nou.
A worst case scenario is that Real Madrid also draw Barcelona in the Champions League and lose both legs. Mourinho could win the Spanish league and yet have been beaten by Barça in his last seven matches. It would be the hollowest of title wins for fans whose priority is beating Barça, but it wouldn't bother a coach looking to complete a grand slam of titles in Europe's top three leagues.
How would he feel at the end of the season if he fails to beat Barcelona but wins the league, he was asked after this latest defeat. "I will feel great," he said.
A cup exit next week certainly would not be the end of Real Madrid's season. When Sergio Ramos dropped the trophy under the wheels of the open top bus the team were celebrating on last season it was a Freudian slip – the competition is the least important in Spain by some distance. But there is going out with dignity and going out in shame.
Next week's return leg comes a day before Mourinho turns 49. Madrid fans are hoping he throws caution to the wind and brings Mesut Özil or Kaka back in to his midfield. Making room for a playmaker by either returning Pepe to the centre of defence or probably better still leaving him at home in Madrid.
A Real struggle: Mourinho v Barça
29 Nov 2010 (La Liga): Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid
16 April 2011 (La Liga): Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona
20 April (Copa del Rey final): Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid [aet]
27 April (Champs Lg s-f, 1st leg): Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona
3 May (Champs Lg s-f, 2nd leg): Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid
14 Aug (Spanish Super Cup, 1st leg): Real Madrid 2-2 Barcelona
17 Aug (Spanish Super Cup, 2nd leg): Barcelona 3-2 Real Madrid
10 Dec (La Liga): Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona
18 Jan 2012 (Copa del Rey q-f, 1st leg): Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona
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