By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
So much for Real Madrid’s makeover in the media this week. A new year had begun and a new strategy was unveiled as Iker Casillas, then Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa all spoke to the press. No Blancos player had done that for five months in an official club capacity and the messages were positive; the outlook optimistic. Madrid were looking to clean their image after turbulent times in the final months of 2012.
But, not for the first time, Jose Mourinho meddled and instead of a return to calm and normality at the Santiago Bernabeu, Sunday saw the latest installment of a long-lasting soap opera.
Casillas was dropped again and this time in front of his home fans – a set of supporters who hold the club captain in the highest regard. Earlier this week, the Spain skipper had been named the “best goalkeeper in the world” by the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics), but reputations mean little to Mourinho and the keeper was on the bench once more. Subsequently, Madrid fans made their voices heard like never before – Casillas was cheered as his name was announced on the loud speaker. And Mourinho was jeered.
“I have been a Madrid fan all my life and me and my whole family want you to leave now, Mourinho,” read a banner held by a young boy in the crowd. The Portuguese was playing with fire – and on Sunday he nearly got burnt.
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Barca were 4-0 up after just half an hour thanks to Xavi, Pedro’s double and a Lionel Messi penalty, and it was cruise control for the home side after that although the Tenerife-born forward was twice denied his hat-trick by the assistant’s flag and the Argentine hit the bar with a fierce free kick in the second period.
Barca now lead second-placed Atletico Madrid by 11 points after the capital club could only draw at Mallorca and stay 16 clear of Real Madrid, but the best news of the night was the return of Tito Vilanova to the bench.
The Barca boss looked in good shape after his recent surgery and even spoke to the press after the match. There can be plenty of tension in his job but his players ensured there was zero stress in this match.
With 52 points from a possible 54, it’s plain sailing for Barca at the moment.
Mourinho must have been annoyed as, after just six minutes, he was forced to replace red-carded Antonio Adan with the chided Casillas. The young goalkeeper had hacked down Carlos Vela after a treacherous pass from Raphael Varane and conceded a penalty which Xabi Prieto promptly slotted into the corner, sending Iker the wrong way, to make it 1-1 after Karim Benzema’s early opener. Had the substitute saved it, Mourinho surely would have been open to real ridicule.
As it was, Casillas’ confidence looked shot and twice he fumbled within minutes, first finding Prieto with a misplaced pass which could have led to a second Sociedad strike and then flapping at a corner moments later.
The captain was not performing like one, and wasn’t actually the captain, either, refusing Ronaldo’s offer of the armband after 12 minutes. Iker, no doubt, felt that if he didn’t deserve to be in the team to start with, then he did not merit the honour of leading his side on Sunday.
And as all of that went on, none of it was helping Real Madrid. Sami Khedira, of all people, restored their lead with, of all things, a back-heel, but Xabi Prieto pulled the visitors level five minutes later. At half-time, there were more jeers for the coach as the teams went off at 2-2.
Mourinho must have had plenty to say at the interval, but part of the problem he had created himself – had Casillas started instead of Adan, there would have been less tension, more harmony and, quite probably, a full complement of players on the pitch, too.
Madrid’s 10 men toiled and, perhaps more than ever before, the champions needed their star man to step up. Luckily, he did. Cristiano Ronaldo had been something of a peripheral figure in the first half, but the Portuguese popped up when it mattered most with two timely interventions in the second period. First, he latched on to a glorious pass from Benzema to slot home for 3-2, before lashing a free kick past Claudio Bravo which the Chilean will believe he should have saved.
Xabi Prieto then became the first visiting player to hit a hat-trick at the Bernabeu since Walter Pandiani in 2007, a treble which came coincidentally in another 4-3 win for Madrid – against Espanyol.
And 4-3 this one ended, too. Mourinho faced the press afterwards and told them they had been too hard on Adan. Perhaps he was right. It was not the youngster’s fault, after all, but the Portuguese continues to create disharmony at the Bernabeu and, although he has signed a contract to remain at the club until 2016, it is currently difficult to see such a long stay for the 49-year-old in the Spanish capital.
Mourinho, however, will not walk. Should he depart of his own accord, the Portuguese will be forced to pay €20 million to the Spanish side. If Madrid break the contract, they will have to do the same. Nevertheless, a mutual agreement may yet be reached in the summer, particularly if the capital club end the season without a trophy.
La Liga looks lost as Madrid trail Barcelona by 16 points, while a tough tie against Manchester United awaits in the second round of the Champions League and the Copa del Rey is considered to be merely a consolation. So all of Mourinho’s eggs look likely to be placed in the European basket this term.
Madrid, meanwhile, have placed all their faith in their under-fire coach and will wait until the end of the season before making a decision on the future of the man they had hoped would lead them to domestic dominance and La Decima – a 10th European Cup success.
The latter may yet happen but the capital club would do well to listen to their fans, too. On Sunday’s evidence, Casillas, still the best in the world and the one man who truly represents the club’s values above all others, comes ahead of his coach in the affections of the Santiago Bernabeu support. And so too does Ronaldo.
The Portuguese forward has been linked with a move away from Madrid but it seems likely the former Manchester United man will extend his stay at the Bernabeu by signing a new deal. That should now be a priority because if he leaves, the 27-year-old will be impossible to replace. Other than Lionel Messi, no player in the world can come close to him.
So he and Casillas should form the backbone of the next project at the Bernabeu, with or without Mourinho.
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