After Manchester United departed the Veltins Arena on Tuesday night with two away goals it left supporters declaring the Red Devils all but in the final. With United expected to fly the flag for England on home turf at Wembley on 28 May, the only question was: who will join Sir Alex Ferguson’s side? Only one of the Spanish giants could make it. Enter José Mourinho.
Real Madrid welcomed Barcelona to the Bernabeu for the other semi-final, with Mourinho looking to outwit Pep Guardiola for the second time in a week. Mourinho’s desire to succeed Ferguson at United has not gone unnoticed in the press. The Portuguese professes his love for English football and Sir Alex has even made reference to the idea of Mourinho taking his position when it becomes available.
But if Mourinho is playing the waiting game, and using Madrid as a stepping stone, then he could be in for a long wait if the semi-final is used in evidence. With three red cards, only one actually handed to a player, and plenty of controversy, Barcelona midfielder Xavi was moved to describe the result as a “win for football”. It has promised so much, with some of the greatest players in the world present, but delivered so little in terms of actual football.
The game ended with Barcelona taking the same advantage back to Camp Nou for the second leg that United achieved the night before. Yet, in the Spanish capital Mourinho’s side was instructed to stop Barcelona playing, with defender Pepe pushed into midfield. After all, it had worked in the Copa Del Rey final a week previously, which Madrid won 1-0 thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s header deep into extra time.
However, in the European game Pepe was harshly sent off for a late tackle on Dani Alves, who along with Sergio Busquests and Pedro, was one of the great’ play actors’ on the night. The dismissal proved to be a massive turning point in the game but in the end beautiful football prevailed as Lionel Messi went on to score a fantastic brace.
The tense and aggressive atmosphere at the Bernabeu spilt over into half time as Barcelona’s substitute goalkeeper was sent off after sharing his thoughts with Alvaro Arbeloa and Madrid’s staff on the bullish tactics employed.
However, the real pantomime villain of the night was Mourinho, who was sent to the stands for sarcastically applauding the referee over Pepe’s red card. But the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ also angered many Madrid supporters with what can only be described as anti-football tactics. The sole purpose of Mourinho’s set-up was to stop Barcelona from deploying the possession game to its fullest effect, and therefore negating the risk of Los Cules repeating the 5-0 hammering at Camp Nou earlier this season.
The tactical approach taken by Mourinho was a direct reaction to that loss, with the negative attitude displayed even after Madrid rested many stars the previous weekend. Madrid knocked six past third placed Valencia at the Mestalla despite the understrength team, with Gonzalo Higuain bagging a hat-trick. Remarkably, he was still denied an opportunity against Barcelona.
Even Cristiano Ronaldo’s frustration with the negative approach was apparent. The former United player’s team-mates failed to put any pressure on Barça defence, as the visitors passed freely their own half, with Real dropping back to its territory. The sole purpose was to protect Los Merengues’ goal and then give the ball to Ronaldo on the counter. The negative approach in a fixture of such magnitude tarnished the reputation of the Spanish game to such an extent that it hardly resembled a football match.
It was always going to be a feisty affair though with Mourinho kicking off the mind games in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday afternoon. After all, for Mourinho, the fixture begins in the press room, not on the pitch. Indeed, the use of off-the- field antics to inspire his players replicates Ferguson at United; both share an immense gift to manipulate the media and motivate their players while unsettling the opposition.
Meanwhile, Mourinho’s persona makes him as a great candidate to handle the pressure that comes with managing a club of United’s standing; a club with a similar global presence to Madrid.
However, more than the controversy it is Mourinho’s anti-football tactics that have raised questions about his ability to keep the Old Trafford faithful entertained. The Portuguese manager has a proven track record of winning trophies but it is his penchant to ‘park the bus’ in certain fixtures that raises suspicions over his capacity to replace Ferguson.
United’s foundations were beautifully outlined in the recent film ‘United’ and its accompanying documentary, ‘Sir Bobby Charlton: Football Icon’. Charlton spoke of a conversation held with Jimmy Murphy in the 1950s where the Welsh coach described United’s support, drawn as it was from the industrial community of Trafford Park. ‘They come to Old Trafford on a Saturday expecting to be entertained,’ said Murphy. 50 years on and the club still retains these values; the belief that United is there for the supporters and it is the responsibility of the staff and players to make sure the faithful is entertained.
These ideals ensure many ask the question: is Mourinho really suitable for Old Trafford?