Mourinho faces different kind of selection headache

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

Jose MourinhoPA PhotosJose Mourinho: Testing times ahead of the Real Madrid coach

This is where a manager earns his corn. It's where he earns his plaudits, wins admirers and loses doubters. It's where he truly becomes 'Special'.

Without wanting to open the can of worms that is 'How special is the Special One?', Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho has had largely a good time of things since his arrival in the Spanish capital. One of, if not the, strongest squad of players in world football (some of whom, of course, were brought to the club by Mourinho) and a president in Florentino Perez who, despite not matching the spending of previous years, will back his man with money. Mourinho's managerial qualities aside, that's got to help.

- Selection dilemma for Mou

It'll be interesting, then, to see just how the Portuguese boss operates in the coming weeks. Madrid still trails Barcelona by eight points in La Liga - a tough task to overhaul the gap in itself, even with the Madrid squad at full-strength. Injuries are mounting, however, and if spots in the treatment room for full-backs Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Coentrao and Marcelo isn't bad enough, midfielder Semi Khedira joining them in there for a few weeks is.

It's a testing time for Madrid and Mourinho. Arguably his toughest since joining Los Blancos. His superb job in helping Madrid overhaul the dominance of Barcelona to become league champions last season and battle toe-to-toe with the Catalans in every match, rather than suffer 5-0 thrashings as Mou did in his first El Clasico in charge, is unquestionable. It was a tough test, but one that was passed with flying colours. Now Mourinho faces a much different test. Madrid is chasing Barcelona, desperate to close the gap sooner rather than later - if at all - but it is chasing them with a squad ravaged by injuries to key men. It's a tough test without even starting to mention the reported quarrels with Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas and Mesut Ozil. Another can of worms, one that won't be opened in this post, however.

Madrid travels to Mallorca on Sunday night and it'll be a tricky test. It was tricky last season, with Los Blancos en-route to a record-breaking Liga success, as late goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon saw Mourinho's men come from a goal down to take all three points from the Iberostar Stadium. It was tricky the season before, too, with Madrid failing to score and having to settle for a share of the spoils in a 0-0 stalemate. Two games in Palma for Mourinho as Madrid boss, and two tricky tests. Mallorca's form may have dipped off in recent matches, with three straight defeats following an encouraging five-game unbeaten start to their campaign, but Sunday night is set to be no different, especially with the injury concerns for Los Merengues.

So often the Madrid boss is left with a selection headache, but it's usually a positive one. "Who's going to miss out this week?", "How can I leave 'x' out for 'y' when 'x' is playing so well?". Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema up top? Mesut Ozil, Kaka or Luka Modric supporting? They're choices any manager in world football would like to make. On Sunday night, however, the selection headache will be far from a positive one.

In the first match back from the international break against Celta Vigo at the Santiago Bernabeu, and with his three full-backs injured, Mourinho got it right. The versatile, happy-to-play-anywhere, Michael Essien playing at left-back and doing the job pretty well. The Chelsea loan man has played at full-back before at Chelsea, albeit on the right, and he plugged the gap. That was against Celta, at home, and with all due respect to the Galicians, it was never going to be that much of a problem. On Wednesday night in Dortmund it was and the Germans exploited Madrid's weakness down the left to the max. Not only was Essien shown up, but in his attacking 'partner' Cristiano Ronaldo, he didn't exactly get much support in defence either.

Should Mourinho stick or twist with his seemingly preferred candidate for the vacant left-back slot? Inexperienced youngsters Casado or Nacho Fernandez were put forward before Celta and their names will no doubt be brought up again, especially with a gap to be now filled in midfield in Khedira's absence, and Essien looking handy for that role. Modric would be the other possibility, as on Wednesday night when he replaced the injured Khedira - who was risked by Mourinho following a slight thigh problem - but his more attacking stance leaves Madrid a bit more open at the back with no tough tackling box-to-box man of the same ilk as the injured German.

For me, I'd like to see Essien back in the centre, despite me touting him for left-back before Celta. Not simply because he looked out of place on Wednesday but because Madrid needs to be tougher in the middle of the park in Khedira's absence. I'd love to say Casado or Nacho Fernandez would slot in nicely at left-back, but the truth is I just don't know enough about them to be confident of them stepping up to first team level and doing a job in Mallorca, and any other match they'd be required to play in. Arbeloa's return should provide another headache in the coming weeks - could Sergio Ramos play left-back when Arbeloa returns to the right-back slot?

I received a 'tweet' this week saying Mourinho doesn't trust the young players at his disposal, and I get the feeling that's the case, so expect to see more of the same in defence and Modric coming in to partner Xabi Alonso in the middle. At least that should give Los Blancos some more attacking punch in a game they simply must win, albeit at the expense of Alonso, who'll undoubtedly be doing overtime in his defensive duties. All will be unveiled in Palma on Sunday night.

Follow me on Twitter @nicholasrigg

ESPN Conversations