Manchester United’s Portuguese midfielder Nani (C) holds his head as Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir (2L) sends him off after a challenge against Real Madrid’s defender Alvaro Arbeloa (L) during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match at Old Trafford in Manchester, northwest England. (AFP)
Their 2-1 Champions League victory over Manchester United may have been controversial but it topped a fantastic eight days for Real Madrid that have potentially saved their season.
Just over a week ago Jose Mourinho’s Spanish champions looked set to end the current campaign without a major trophy.
Lagging 16 points behind bitter rivals Barcelona in the league, they also faced an uphill task against Barca and United after only managing 1-1 draws in the home legs of their Copa del Rey and Champions League ties respectively.
But back-to-back wins over a below-par Barca secured progress to the Copa final and closed the gap in La Liga to boost morale before the most important date of all on Tuesday at Old Trafford. Mourinho’s relationship with many of his senior players has been far from ideal this season and remains so unstable that the Portuguese still seems certain to leave at the end of the season.
Yet for now the club have been galvanised by a common goal—European glory. For over a decade Madrid have chased “La Decima”—their 10th European Cup—whilst Mourinho himself is after the personal glory of becoming the first man to lead three different clubs to European football’s top prize.
However, his uncertain future in Madrid also left many cynical when analysing his post-match conclusions in Manchester that “the best team had lost”.
British newspapers, when not picking over Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir highly disputed decision to send-off United winger Nani, certainly interpreted his modesty as a sign that he has an eye on Alex Ferguson’s job when the veteran manager retires.
A return to England would appear to be former Chelsea boss Mourinho’s most likely destination and for all the deference and respect he continues to show Ferguson, he has given the impression that being the Scot’s successor is the job he most craves.
Forgetting the touchline antics, mind games and media posturing, though, it is on the field that Mourinho has again proved himself in the past week. His gameplans against Barcelona exposed the Catalans’ weaknesses in the most efficient manner and even accounting for their one-man advantage, his decision to introduce Modric after the red card swung the game decisively in Real’s favour.
Madrid took full advantage of the extra man, as Modric found the net and former United favourite Cristiano Ronaldo sealed a 3-2 aggregate victory.
The Croatian has endured a difficult first season at Madrid after his big money move from Tottenham Hotspur.
But on the biggest stage of all he produced his most significant contribution of the campaign to again validate Mourinho’s pursuit of him in the close season.
And Modric wasn’t the only relative newcomer who played a starring role at Old Trafford. Goalkeeper Diego Lopez was only signed in late January after Iker Casillas suffered a serious hand injury.
The rise of 19-year-old centre-back Raphael Varane since he secured a place in the side thanks to Pepe’s injury at the turn of the year has also been remarkable.
How much Mourinho’s reliance on three new faces at such a pivotal point in the season is merely down to circumstance or his genius very much depends on an evaluation of the self-styled “special one”.
What is for certain, though, is that those new additions—added to the confidence of coming through a potentially season-ending week with flying colours—make Madrid an even more dangerous proposition for whoever is unfortunate enough to be paired with them when the quarter-final draw is made in Nyon next Friday.