Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, and the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, are not, as far as we know, Facebook friends or following each other on Twitter. Were they regularly engaged in cyber-small talk – aside from “favouriting” each other’s firings – they might well have turned the chat this week to their respective managers.
Abramovich has installed Madrid-born Rafa Benitez, against supporters’ wishes, and seen him serve up two turgid goalless draws in his first two games; while Perez has Jose Mourinho in charge – the most popular manager in Chelsea’s history but increasingly unpopular with Real Madrid’s supporters and potentially 14 points behind the leaders Barcelona by midnight Saturday.
Perez has seen how Abramovich canned Champions League winner Roberto Di Matteo – he did the same to Vicente del Bosque in the cruellest of his seven sackings – and knows the pressure will be on for him to show the same ruthless streak should things go wrong in tomorrow night’s Madrid derby.
Real have already dropped 13 points this season – only one less than in the whole of last season and while it’s acceptable to concentrate on the Champions League – it’s not acceptable to be out of the title race by November. Only six managers have ever fallen this far behind Barcelona so early in the season and all were sacked.
Last season Perez is understood to have had an agreement in place with Benitez that meant he would take over should Mourinho leave his post mid-season. There were even suggestions that the agreement involved Benitez being paid by Madrid not to take other jobs; which would explain him turning down Chelsea when first approached.
Now there is no such plan B in place for Perez who, aside from wishing to avoid the potential €20m (£16.2m) compensation package, still believes Mourinho is the man most capable of delivering him the club’s 10th European Cup next May.
His problem is that there are almost three months before the competition starts again and the pressure on him to remove his man would intensify should Real, currently not even the best team in Madrid, let alone Spain, slip further away from the top of the table.
Real Madrid have not looked like potential Champions League winners in the group stage in amassing what will be their lowest points haul since 2005. But then neither did Mourinho’s Inter in 2010 when they struggled in a group that included Barcelona before going on to win the final against Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu.
That night, sat in the visitors’ dug-out, remains Mourinho’s greatest to date at a stadium where once again in midweek the singing of his name was drowned out by jeers from supporters, despite the fact that the team were in the process of winning the second leg of their Spanish Cup game by a three-goal margin. Add that to the same magnitude of victory in the first leg and it was the first time they’d achieved such a feat since 1978. A happy crowd, then? Not entirely.
Mourinho, as ever, has his potential exits planned. He is close friends with the Paris St-Germain president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, who employed him as a pundit during Euro 2012, in his capacity as head of Al Jazeera Sport. PSG will test Real Madrid’s resolve to retain Cristiano Ronaldo this summer. If the Portuguese ends up in Paris alongside Zlaten Ibrahimovic, then a strong coach with experience of handling both men will be required and agent Jorge Mendes, representing both clients, would be the man to make it happen.
In the build-up to Real Madrid’s Champions League meeting with Manchester City, Mourinho met with his old friend Sir Alex Ferguson and if the United manager has any say in who replaces him then Mourinho remains the strongest candidate for the Old Trafford job. Mourinho has also gone enthusiastically on the record to say he would have no problem working for Abramovich again.
His suitors are less fickle than those who have never warmed to him in the Spanish capital. The press that feeds their disdain has already dubbed tomorrow’s encounter “judgement day”. He has won all six of his Madrid derbies to date but they warn the end will be nigh if his team become the first Real Madrid side to lose this fixture in 13 seasons.
On form Atletico will provide a huge test. They have won 11 of their 13 games this season, losing only once. They also play the style of football that least suits Real Madrid, who lost last week to a Betis team who decided to let them have the ball, denying them their greatest weapon – the counter-attack.
Diego Simeone’s side is likely to employ the same tactic. Atletico are the third-highest scorers in the league but are 11th in the table in terms of minutes in possession of the ball.
If Mourinho comes out a winner tomorrow then planning will continue unhindered for the Champions League last 16. If the club can finally offload Kaka, who has been given just 360 minutes to so far this season, then there may even be room to bring in a January reinforcement.
Perez went down into the dressing room after that defeat last weekend, though his mere presence served as a chilly reminder of how serious things had become rather than a warm show of support. Players have also publicly stood up for their coach.
The captain, Iker Casillas, said: “Maybe people are being unjust with Mourinho – a large part of the success we have had over the last two seasons has been down to him. He’s the best coach in the world so maybe too much is asked of him. In the dressing room we have 100 per cent faith in him.”
At such a politically charged club a vote of confidence from the players can be as ominous as one from the board and Mourinho will discover tomorrow the real extent of his players’ desire for him to stay.
Hired in June 2010, Mourinho is now the longest-serving manager in the league. For a president who wants a Champions League it would be madness to lose a man who has won it twice, but a 14-point gap between Madrid and Barcelona would be a real test of Perez’s sanity.