Atletico Madrid's Copa Del Rey win over Real on Friday wasn't just about short-term glory, says Tim Stannard, but a chance to build for better things ahead...
Atletico Madrid haven't beaten their bitter rivals in almost 14 years. But Tim Stannard says that if anyone can help the Rojiblancos end that curse, it's Diego Simeone...
As the recently booted bottle of water rebounded off a grey, concrete wall of the third-tier concourse of the Santiago Bernabeu, an expletive of such ferocity and invention was let out by the furious, arm-waving fan that could only be repeated in this article as a long series of asterisks.
Had Real Madrid beaten Espanyol 2-1 on Sunday night, the scoreline four minutes from normal time, it would have been a depressing enough evening for the supporters. It was a leaden, sporadically half-decent-in-parts performance for José Mourinho's side against a team who were second-from-bottom of the table, had just two wins from 15 and were without a victory in the Bernabeu since the 1995-1996 campaign. Instead, Espanyol equalised late on from a set-piece, yet another failing of a team that have dropped more points after 16 matches this season than the entire past campaign.
Although Real Madrid were missing the injured Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín, the lack of strikers should not have been a problem against an Espanyol team who traditionally turned up to have their tummies tickled in this particular tie. But once again, Cristiano Ronaldo was the only player who felt inclined to take part in the entirety of the match.
"He had a good game, the others didn't," admitted José Mourinho, a manager who had dropped Angel di María to the bench after a poor performance in a midweek cup defeat to Celta Vigo, and then stuck the winger on at the start of the second half, having hauled Luka Modric off. "Modric is having some little problems. Every time we start with him for two matches in a row his response has not been the best," was the verdict of Mourinho after the match.
Criticism of a hugely expensive signing and personal choice of the manager would have been newsworthy enough, but it was the declaration from Mourinho to those journalists who were fast enough to get down to the media room to catch the speedy entrance of the Madrid boss after the draw that have made the headlines in Monday's papers across Spain. "I think it's practically impossible," announced Mourinho to the question of whether the league leaders could be caught, even as the Barcelona match against Atlético Madrid match was only in its infancy. "Ten or 13 points is too big a distance to wipe out."
It was a declaration where you weren't entirely sure if you had heard the Madrid manager correctly or not. It wasn't the type of defeatist talk permitted at the Santiago Bernabeu, especially in relation to the accursed Barcelona. Bernd Schuster, sitting in the same chair four years, before had been fired for admitting that his team had no chance of winning an upcoming clash against the Catalan club.
But Mourinho knew that his position at Real Madrid had been made as solid as a rock the day before with Florentino Pérez taking the opportunity in a speech to offer "my recognition, my confidence in your work, my affection and my support", to a manager who had recently challenged the home supporters to boo him, picked a fight with the club's second team coach and whose players had been indifferent and indolent in both the league and Champions League campaigns. 'I want a Mourinho that stops turning every week into a battle against the whole world,' wrote a despondent Tomás Roncero, a columnist for AS and perhaps the most fanatical Real Madrid supporter on the planet.
Whilst the confidence in Mourinho held by the Real Madrid president is apparently secure, the same can't be said for that of the home fans, perhaps the reason why the usual announcement of the manager's name by the stadium announcer at the Santiago Bernabeu was absent on Sunday night ahead of the Espanyol clash.
Over two-and-half seasons at Madrid, a number of versions of Mourinho have been seen before and after matches - childish, angry, chippy, humorous, chastened, apoplectic and modest amongst numerous others but on Sunday it was a distinctly defeated coach that spoke to a media expecting a more robust response to the draw. There was the feeling that Mourinho simply didn't know what was going on with the attitude of his players in the current campaign, footballers who wiped out all-comers last season to win the title with the same record at home than on the side's travels.
This year, Madrid have appeared without a plan away from home with the only decent performance in la Liga coming against Barcelona in the Camp Nou. Instead, the side seemed to be relying on Cristiano Ronaldo to constantly get them out of trouble, a task which the forward would normally succeed in, but not week in, week out. But the Portuguese continues to cut a lonely, dejected figure this year, carrying a struggling side on his back. As Iker Casillas admits, as Madrid appear more mortal by the match, opposition teams become emboldened. "Perhaps we have lost the respect for us last year," opined the goalkeeper after the Espanyol game.
The past three weeks have seen Madrid be defeated by Betis, do the bare minimum to grab a traditional victory at Atlético Madrid, labour against Valladolid and lose a cup clash at Celta Vigo. It's a run that sees Real Madrid now 13 points behind a Barcelona side who saw off Atlético Madrid 4-1 in the final game of Sunday night. It's a lead that would be challenging enough to chase down even without every match becoming an opportunity for more lost points for Real Madrid.
As Mourinho admitted after the game, what's happening with his Real Madrid side is "a new situation for me, but I won't face it as a drama but as a step in my professional life". The focus for the club is now entirely on the Champions League but even that looks a stern challenge with Madrid only finishing second in their group to leave a potential last-16 clash with opponents such as Bayern Munich, Juventus, Manchester United and PSG.
The draw will be taking place on Thursday with the final match on Saturday before a winter break being a tough away day to Málaga, led by Manuel Pellegrini, the figure fired to make way for Mourinho. If the manager and Real Madrid fans think things are bad at the moment, they may be about to get an awful lot worse.
Round 16 Results
Getafe 1-1 Osasuna
Mallorca 0-1 Athletic Bilbao
Granada 0-0 Real Sociedad
Sevilla 0-2 Málaga
Zaragoza 0-1 Levante
Valencia 0-1 Rayo Vallecano
Real Madrid 2-2 Espanyol
Barcelona 4-1 Atlético Madrid
Deportivo v Valladolid (Monday)
Celta v Betis (Monday)
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter