If Mourinho's leaving, let the Copa be a coup de grace

Posted by Graham Hunter

Times have been so turbulent at the home of the Spanish champions of late that only the foolhardy would say "definitely," but there is sufficient indication that Spain may be about to see its final Camp Nou Clasico with Jose Mourinho in charge of Real Madrid.

Even after the crowd booing his name, the guerrilla warfare between him and a section of the Madrid media, an apparent tit-for-tat feud with Sergio Ramos, the dropping of Iker Casillas and an eight-stone weakling defence of a brilliantly won Spanish championship last year, Mourinho is such a will-of-the-wisp that there are a couple of scenarios (however unlikely) in which he wriggles free from this straightjacket of his own making and retains the throne next season.

One of those scenarios is that he fatally holes Barcelona's quest to retain their Copa del Rey crown on Tuesday night at the Camp Nou and that this, somehow, reinstates him as an attractive proposition for a president, Florentino Perez, who may well have to face a full-on challenge in the elections for office in a few months.

Out of sympathy for Mourinho I feel that it's only fair to add that he currently seems utterly disenchanted, both with life in Spain and how Real Madrid functions.

However one of the Special One's more notable talents is his contrariness. Whether you want to talk about throwing a Premier League winner's medal into the crowd, not celebrating with his players on the pitch at the end of a Champions League final victory, talking about dead swans and bird flu in a football conference, smuggling himself into a dressing room in a laundry hamper or ranting about UNICEF and favourable refereeing toward Barca, Mourinho swims against the tide.

Will Kaka's swan song include Copa start?
Ancelotti leading race to replace Mou?

Furthermore, as immensely important as it is, this Copa Del Rey semifinal is only the first part of a trio of matches that may serve to define his era at the Bernabeu. If he pulls three good results from this, the Liga Clasico on Saturday and next week's Champions League return leg against Manchester United then there are undoubtedly some Madridistas who will forgive him almost all of what has gone before. If he fails, then some of the genuinely special moments he's had since taking over from the more restrained and stylish Manuel Pellegrini risk being overshadowed.

So it's ironic that this trophy, one that Los Blancos went 18 seasons without winning (and often treated like an unwanted smell in an elevator), now assumes such huge importance. It wasn't what he was brought in to win.

Yet Mourinho risked humiliation at Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday; with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas already out due to suspension and injury, he rested Xabi Alonso, Rafael Varane and Karim Benzema altogether while starting the match with Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Fabio Coentrao on the bench. At the final curtain in La Coruna his champions could take a bow thanks to an inspired and gutsy comeback victory -- but it was a risk.

After all, the points gap between Madrid and Barcelona in the title "chase" (although that description is a friendly one) is embarrassing enough for the proud capital club. But to drop further behind because of a loss to the bottom club would have been a horrible blow to self-esteem at the most inexcusable time. Thus, it was a gamble well won, albeit one aimed at preparing for a mighty tussle at the Camp Nou.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho has a happy knack of working his way out of pressure-filled situations, though the next two weeks will be crucial if he's to remain at Real.

If Mourinho's men put Spain's champions-elect out of the Copa then not only does it act as the perfect springboard for the following week's trip to Manchester, but it puts the searching, relentless and uncomfortable spotlight right back on Barcelona -- and with a Clasico at the Bernabeu coming up on Saturday, too.

Should Jordi Roura's temporary spell at the wheel of SS Barcelona steer him away from the Copa del Rey rocks and win him the Blue Riband of these regal battles then Madrid -- and Mourinho -- face some stern choices, some emergency patching together and a horribly anxious wait for the Champions League the following week.

It's inescapable that Mourinho was principally bought for two tasks -- to end Barcelona's domestic supremacy and to return Madrid to its one-time status as Kings (or at least noble warriors) of Europe -- but he's been only partially successful at either directive. In each of the first two "Special" seasons Los Blancos have been muscular Champions League semifinalists -- last season it was only failed spot kicks that prevented them facing Chelsea in the final.

That's the kind of record which, should Madrid eliminate United, will look consistent, impressive and worth thinking hard about if his credit is running low at the Bernabeu. However, should they go out at Old Trafford, defeat would convert Mourinho's Champions League record in his 32-month tenure into a failure.

And while two of Mourinho's three seasons will have ended with Barcelona as champions of La Liga (I see this title race as foregone), it would have taken a visionary man or woman to predict last May that Madrid weren't going to be capable of retaining their Spanish crown. It wasn't so much that Mourinho's 2011/12 squad set numerous statistical records, it was that they looked comfortable in their skin as high-achieving, fast-breaking, free-scoring champions.

There was a hunger, a power, a determination and ruthlessness, though the bright light has dimmed sufficiently regularly this season given that the title is gone.

What's left is this knockout tournament, one that served as Mourinho's sustenance in that deeply tricky first season. It was won thanks to one of the most gripping of the 15 Clasicos in which he's fought over the past 32 months. In fact the 2011 Copa del Rey final wasn't just the scene of an epic that was clinched thanks to a towering Cristiano Ronaldo header, it was the only one of Mourinho's 15 Clasicos that ended with his team preventing Barcelona from scoring.

That Copa gave us wild celebrations around the Cibeles fountain and images of Sergio Ramos dropping the trophy for it to be mangled under the wheels of the open-topped bus in which the team was parading but, unfortunately for Los Blancos, the sweet aftertaste only lasted a handful of days before their elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Pep Guardiola's side.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty ImagesReal Madrid hasn't been imperious this season -- far from it, even -- but knocking Barca out of the Copa would be a sweet success.

If Mourinho eliminates Barca this time it will not only damage their greatest rivals (and a club which Mourinho sometimes gives the impression of being obsessed by), but it might set up the first Copa del Rey final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid for 21 years -- Los Colchoneros play Sevilla in their own semifinal second leg this week, holding a 2-1 home advantage.

Of the 49 goals in Clasicos since Mourinho signed on the dotted line, Barca have scored 29 and won six, lost three and drawn six. There have been 20 different scorers, 104 bookings and 10 sendings-off.

So, if this does prove to be Mourinho's last Clasico at the Camp Nou then what, other than a partial trophy record, are the conclusions?

Well, thus far there has been an opportunity cost. The trajectory from losing 5-0 in his first to winning 2-1 in Catalunya in order to pretty much clinch last season's title is a pretty huge arc. But it's come at the cost of some of his worst behaviour in all Mourinho's time at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and now Madrid.

The low point: not losing by a handful of goals but his cowardly finger-poke at Tito Vilanova's eye during the Spanish Supercopa. The high point? Certainly the tactical and athletic excellence shown last April in the 2-1 away win.

An ancillary benefit has been the heightening of the rivalry between Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Anyone not enjoying it has no passion and no right to call himself or herself a football fan. During the Mourinho Clasicos, each player has scored 10 times but Messi's eight further goal assists make him the stand-out player of this turbulent, often scalding era.

- Video: Ronaldo's future

It's also true that while not always for the most laudable reasons, the Mourinho versus Guardiola and Mourinho versus Vilanova battles have served to elevate the entire concept of "El Clasico" to the single biggest, most desired match in the world of club football. It was already loved, passionate, coveted and historic but perhaps not completely dominant as the match around the world, but I'd contend that it is now.

So, Mr. Mourinho: do you have a last trick up your sleeve? Does the fact Barcelona continue to defend poorly at full back and are vulnerable in the air mean that Madrid can compensate for a poorly defended championship and set up a nice platform for Manchester United next week?

If (and I do mean that word) this proves to be Mourinho's last Camp Nou Clasico, then it's best to put something firmly on the record. His erratic and often indefensible behaviour while in Spain means that I've regularly been critical of this proud, talented, but sometimes dark man.

However there is no denying that during his reign, these Clasicos have produced many passages of play that have been epic, adrenalin-inspiring, throbbingly passionate and even inspirational. Whoever wins, fingers crossed that it's just like that for the 90 minutes, extra time and penalties that I have a sneaking suspicion Tuesday night will bring us.

ESPN Conversations