Splits, rows and plots: Mourinho era coming to a close

Even a decisive cup victory over Barcelona tonight may not be enough to earn the Portuguese survival at Real. By Pete Jenson

Tired of Real Madrid against Barcelona? Don't worry, there's a new show in town – Real Madrid against Mourinho. It debuted at the weekend and it should run until the end of June. It is not expected to be back in the autumn.

Ahead of tonight's second leg quarter-final of the Spanish Cup against Barcelona, Jose Mourinho was asked yesterday if he was happy at the club. "Mmm" was his reply, accompanied by a brief nodding of the head. He isn't.

The dream of becoming the first coach to do the "grand slam" by winning the English, Italian and Spanish league titles is alive and well. Real are five points clear and have scored 67 goals – a Spanish record for the first half of the season. But that counts for nothing at a club who have hired and fired 30 times in the last 30 years.

Two defeats by Barcelona in the space of a month have helped reopen the wounds inflicted the last time the club had to face their foe twice in quick succession. The damage done by the Spanish Super Cup defeat festered for a while but a run of 15 straight victories lifted everyone.

Last weekend's Spanish Cup first-leg defeat brought all the bad feeling to the surface again in a squad accused of being torn into two camps – the Portuguese-speaking players who defend and are defended by their coach and the Spanish internationals who don't and aren't. "I don't' create cliques," said Mourinho yesterday, almost inadvertently confirming that they exist.

Sergio Ramos said last night: "The relationship with the coach has always been good, Mourinho remains the ideal coach for Madrid, and we are content with him." That came after the club's second captain had been summoned to president Florentino Perez's business headquarters on Monday, to report on the mood in the dressing room. That the president chose to confer with a player and not the man he pays to manage the players may indicate that the point of no return has been reached regardless of Ramos' comments.

Last Friday, a row between Ramos and Mourinho revealed another crack. "Where were you when [Carles] Puyol scored?" Mourinho asked the defender. Ramos had been told to mark Puyol. His explanation was that he had decided to swap with Pepe; that sometimes during a game the players know best; and that Mourinho would not understand because "he had never been a player". That may well prove to have been another death knell.

Worse than the argument having taken place was the fact that it found its way on to the front page of Marca the morning before Real's home match on Sunday. It will not have been Mourinho's first training-ground row, but the leaking of it suggested a deliberate plan to undermine him.

He held a meeting with the players before Sunday's match, branding the incident unprofessional, desperate to unearth the mole. The goalkeeper Iker Casillas was also targeted by Mourinho in the training-ground exchange, making him a suspect.

But a much worse scenario for Mourinho than the leak coming from one of his players is the possibility that the club itself may have played a part in the information reaching Spain's top-selling daily. The club's in-house TV channel will have been the only broadcasters within microphone distance of the altercation. Regardless of the source, it is understood that the club president knew of the following morning's front page on Saturday night and no steps were taken to prevent it going to press.

The row went beyond the argument over Ramos overruling his manager. Mourinho accused his players of "killing" him in the mixed zone after the game, adding that "as Spain World Cup winners" they knew they would be protected by their friends in the press.

There is a perceived favouritism stretching back to last season, when a Jorge Valdano rollicking to Pepe in the Real dressing room, for the way he had spoken to a rival in the tunnel, is believed to have been the catalyst for Mourinho banning the then sporting director from the dressing room.

The Brazilian full-back Marcelo said after the weekend's win: "If there were divisions then you would see evidence of it on the pitch." In the same game cameras had picked up Ronaldo giving Xabi Alonso a long, cold stare, after he had pushed his protesting team-mate in the back in an attempt to move him up the pitch and away from a possible booking.

The differences are not always divided along national lines. The Spanish players may have led the cries of "Real Madrid cannot sit on a 1-0 lead at home against Barcelona" in the inquest to the last defeat but it was Ronaldo who in last year's first leg Champions League semi-final put hands on hips, puffed out his cheeks and looked up to the heavens in a fairly candid rejection of his manager's tactics.

Mourinho still believes that Barcelona are best beaten over two legs by beating them narrowly in the first leg and then punishing them on the counter attack in the second: "1-0 is a good result for the home team in the first leg" he said after the match last week, before lamenting the sloppy equaliser.

Settling for 1-0 is never enough for Real and the image they have of themselves, coloured as it is by an ever-more distant past. One-nil tonight will not be enough. Madrid must score twice and Mourinho could pair the attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil and Kaka, who have won eight of the nine games they have started together. "Pepe will play if fit," Mourinho revealed yesterday.

Will what happens tonight mark a before and after in his relationship with the club? "I'm not answering that," he said. Could it be that win, lose or draw, too much damage has already been done for the game to change anything?

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