What we have this week is really a treat, with Real Madrid fighting to save their season and to begin 2013 on the front foot. The match on Tuesday against Barcelona in the second leg of their Copa del Rey clash was a great start to a three game run that will decide whether Mourinho was a successful coach in Spain or not. Starting with a 3-1 victory in this run of games sets the tone for how things should play out in the future, but really, the score line of this one game should not be exaggerated because what seems like Madrid’s dominance could also be seen as a symptom of Barca’s continuing failure.
The first thing to look at is the game itself and how for once Mourinho got the tactics right and a referee who was not willing to be bullied by Barcelona. This combination enabled Real Madrid to provide a solid defensive effort without the threat of being penalised for every challenge. Admittedly, Barcelona did try it on a bit despite the fact that Roura knew that he wasn’t going to get any favours, but old habits die hard and a lifetime of training can’t be overturned for one match. With Mallenco in charge Madrid had a chance to get their tackles in without being punished unfairly. However, the tactical battle during the match was much more interesting than what was happening with the referee. Much like in the Milan game, Roura had no idea what to do to tactically break down Madrid once plan A had failed. Against Milan there was no incision, there was little magic from Messi, and the ball simply moved from wing to wing via Xavi and Iniesta. The same things happened on Tuesday, with the occasional shot from Pedro and Iniesta when they cut inside. The Alba goal at the end was from a lovely chip over the backline by Iniesta but it was probably the only through ball in the final third that reached its target. Barcelona once again had 62% of possession and very little to show for it, but that was because of the Madrid game plan: bring the fullbacks in and keep one defensive line. By congesting the middle of the penalty area and letting the Barcelona midfield take long range efforts Real Madrid managed to nullify almost every Barcelona attempt. Varane was particularly impressive all game and proved that against Barca all you have to do is look for the interceptions and resist the urge to get stuck in, unlike Pepe. In the end there was only going to be one result once Ronaldo scored the first goal since it meant Barca had to chase the game against a team that was quite happy to give two thirds of the pitch up.
The next two games coming up will really show how Mourinho wants to be remembered in Madrid. The game on Saturday against Barcelona will give an indication as to the team for next week. Having played and beaten Barcelona in the match that mattered, there will be two possibilities for the Classico this weekend: either Mourinho will field a strong team and show that he wants to beat Barcelona for pride or he will bench several major players and set his sight on winning in Manchester. Either way, there will be a lot of politics in his decision and his legacy will rely on how well he does. If he sacrifices the next Classico then it will show that he has truly given up on La Liga and that he plans to focus on winning the Champions League. It will also show that Mourinho is willing to sacrifice his feud with Barcelona for a chance at some silverware, a decision that would be unpopular with the Madrid faithful but would be understood by the board. However, Mourinho has too much history with Barcelona to simply roll over in favour of beating Man U, all the eye poking and other shenanigans would have been for nothing.
But with the greater prize in the Champions League and most of the Real Madrid team available for the return leg, it would be silly for Mourinho to risk it all by trying to get a few points off Barcelona that probably won’t matter in the end. The Champions League is winnable because Real Madrid is in a good position and the competition shouldn’t scare them too much. United have been able to win despite playing poorly in Europe most of the season, and against a Madrid team hot off a Classico win they may just fold. Against QPR it took a Rafael wonder goal and a lapse of judgement at the end of the game from an overrated group of defenders to win. Man U have found a way to win a lot of matches playing poorly and have rode their luck a lot of the way too, but without Phil Jones to pick up Ronaldo and maybe without a fully fit Van Persie there is a good chance that Madrid could dominate the game by controlling the middle of the field. It might just be time to call the final as being a Bayern Munich – Real Madrid face off. Also with Barcelona 2-0 down against a Milan team than knows how to defend competently at times and Barca showing that their possession football is not scoring them a lot of goals against quality sides it should be a good year for Madrid to put in a CL challenge. Anyway, depending on what team Mourinho starts on Saturday we’ll know whether he plans to go all out for the rest of the season on all fronts or whether he is going to be more tactical and hedge his bets on CL success, his third and Madrid’s tenth.