From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.35 :: NO.10 :: Mar. 08, 2012
If the canny idea — as a lot of people are always sure it is in his case — was to deflect attention away from the obvious, then Jose Mourinho succeeded. Late last February, Daniel Aranzubia had had a blinder in goal and Real Madrid, rather unluckily, had failed to beat a dogged Deportivo La Coruña. Seven points adrift of Barcelona with 13 games to go, the result meant. The blame this time, Mourinho decided, lay with the scheduling. “The people who decided that we played today knew what they were doing,” he railed, claiming a ghastly conspiracy had been at work from the beginning of the season. “They laugh at me behind my back but I will continue denouncing this situation.”
After taking a pot-shot at Deportivo (who would eventually get relegated) for defending cravenly and having the temerity to be content with one point, he moved on, putting a brave face on his side's fortunes. “The league is not lost. Seven points are a lot but mathematics in football, though important on paper, is not the definitive thing.”
But deep down, even Mourinho must have felt that it was all over. For the third time in a row, the Liga had despairingly slipped out of Madrid's grasp. The man who'd been headhunted from Inter, the one that had conquered Josep Guardiola's Barcelona and — they hoped — could finally help Real do it, had failed. Madrid had been eviscerated 5-0 in the season's first Clasico in November and — though they didn't know it then — more pain and humiliation at the hands of the Catalans was to follow.
Cut to this February and the tables have turned spectacularly in the Liga. After 24 rounds, Madrid finds itself 10 points clear, a position even the most myopic of Barcelona supporters would not bet on recovery from. Some of the credit for the apparent revival must, of course, go to Mourinho and his team but Barca's failings have as much to do with it. In the indisputable duopoly the Liga is, all it needs for one to look good is for the other to look bad.
At the same stage last season — 24 games — Madrid had 60 points against its name; this season, the number's improved only to 64. But damningly in Barcelona's case, the figures read 65 and 54.
True the Meringues have improved: the side has been devastating in its thrust in attack, flattening opponents with a remarkable ferocity. Cristiano Ronaldo has picked up from where he left off — he scored 40 goals in all competitions last season, he's on 29 now already, six hat-tricks included. Karim Benzema finally seems to have won Mourinho's trust and is enjoying his best season at the club, netting 13 times in 16 starts. The difference in the ‘goals for' column too is revealing. At this point last year, the side had scored 55 and only 18 of those away from home. The same figures now read — hold your breath — 80 and 31.
Chances have been created by the truckload — Angel di Maria (13) and Mesut Ozil (11) are one and two on the Liga's assists table. In 17 of 24 games this season, Madrid has scored three or more; in all of last season it managed that feat only 18 times.
There have been difficult games too — against Real Sociedad, Mallorca and Getafe — but Madrid has held on. “We have deserved these victories,” Mourinho said earlier in the year. “We have not got them through luck, we have had to suffer for them…..but we've played either good or very good in all of them.” Xabi Alonso has been as impressive as ever, at the heart of it all, while Gonzalo Higuain, despite starting from the bench more often than not, has scored 14 goals, including crucial ones against Mallorca and Sociedad.
But it is also true that Barcelona has regressed. In the last two seasons, Madrid racked up 90 plus points totals. And lost on both occasions. That it is coasting towards the championship now is a sign of how much Barca has slipped. For the entirety of the last campaign, the Blaugranas dropped only 18 points — this time they've surrendered 16 in away fixtures alone.
It is on its travels that the side has been at its staggering worst. There have been draws against Sociedad, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Villarreal and losses to Getafe and Osasuna — the majority admittedly not easy places to visit — but in the corresponding games last season Barca failed to beat only Sociedad.
There have been mitigating circumstances — injuries to Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Carles Puyol, and Gerard Pique's loss of form. Fatigue from the side's mid-season visit to Japan for the Club World Cup has also been stated as a factor, although a similar excursion to Abu Dhabi two years ago didn't come in its way of winning the league. It could also be that the players have turned callous to the Liga, their dominance perhaps affecting their own appetite for it — although subscribing to this theory requires stretching the imagination.
Barcelona has not openly conceded defeat yet, but Guardiola is not deluding himself either. “The reality is that we are at a substantial distance behind Madrid,” he said after the defeat to Osasuna two weeks ago. “Now we will try to defend the title of European champion.”
In any case, Madrid will likely finish league champion, its tougher run-in notwithstanding, for the first time in the Guardiola era; for the first time since 2007-08, back when Metzelder, Cannavaro, Heinze, Salgado, Guti, van Nistelrooy, Robinho, and Raul were still on the roster. It was so far back that a title race in the Liga actually involved more than two teams (Villareal finished second).
This accomplishment then will go some way towards repairing Mourinho's fraying popularity in the capital which, in recent months, has not exactly threatened to eclipse Rafael Nadal's (who, despite his uncle's Barca history, is an ardent Madridista).
For despite the table-topping and all that, Mourinho has led Madrid to only one Clasico victory in 12 attempts, and that in extra-time, in the final of the Copa del Rey (a win that was possibly instrumental in his earning a second term as manager). His overly defensive, roughhouse tactics in the Clasicos, and his subsequent whingeing and conspiracy theorizing have begun to grate. At the back end of last season, after defeat to Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League, even sports daily Marca, that most one-eyed of Madrid backers, turned on him.
“Mourinho's discourse seems increasingly like that of a boy who claims that the teacher has got it in for him,” popular columnist Fernando Carreño wrote. “All referees, against all opponents, persecute him. Real Madrid, in my opinion, is a great club that deserves something better. At least, it deserves something else. If you're resultada (result-oriented) and you don't get results, what is left?”
With Madrid's 32nd Liga title, at least they won't be asking him that question.
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