It's make-or-break time for Jose Mourinho

Posted by Rob Train

That Real Madrid's Liga season is over is practically confirmed. Even if recent negative results -- weighed against the inexorable march of a still unbeaten Barcelona after Sunday night's trip to Malaga -- drew the sort of responses at institutional level that are to be expected from the Bernabeu, the writing has been on the wall of the crumbling stadium for some time.

As Real slunk from the El Sadar stadium on Saturday night, only Raul Albiol, enjoying his evening in the freezing cold as a result of Sergio Ramos' suspension and Pepe's injury, was willing to face the bushel of microphones aimed at the players. "The league has to help us for the cup and the Champions League," the part-time defender told Canal +. "To build rhythm and go on a run of victories that will allow us to perform well in those competitions; we have to find a positive dynamic, although it's clear we are not going well in the league."

Not going well is a bit of an understatement. Last season, Real dropped 14 points on its way to the title. This term, it has already left 20 scattered around the stadiums of Spain. Barcelona, need anyone need reminding, has dropped just two on its way to a record 55 points at the halfway stage.

If the two teams met tomorrow, the bookmakers would not offer very long odds on Tito Vilanova's side wiping the floor with its eternal rival.

Jose Mourinho is not a man to make excuses. He offered none in the wake of a toothless performance in Pamplona in which the visitor -- with multi-million euro firepower stacked against 20th placed Osasuna -- mustered a solitary shot on goal.

The league is gone. This is now undeniable. But what Real faces at this stage of the season is the unthinkable prospect of not even claiming second place. Atletico has stuttered during its finest season since its double-winning campaign of 1995-96, but not as much as Real. The royal side has fluffed its lines as often as Colin Firth in the "King's Speech." Atletico extended its advantage over Real to seven points with a comfortable 2-0 home win over Zaragoza before Barça took the field on the south coast.

True, shorn of Ronaldo Real should still have had enough wit to outfox Osasuna. The question now is quite how bad things will get before the end of the season.

A double-header against Valencia in the King's Cup is sandwiched by a league game at Mestalla next weekend. Valencia was the first team to make a dent in Real's invulnerability this year, when it carved out a valiant 2-2 tie at the Bernabeu. Under new coach Ernesto Valverde it has become a more solid opponent than during Mauricio Pellegrino's brief tenure. This is not the sort of tie Real needs right now.

Sergio Ramos is suspended for his fruity observations about the referee during the last cup match against Celta. Marcelo and Gonzalo Higuain are returning from injury and Karim Benzema seems to have left his touch somewhere in the winter break.

Luka Modric continued his one game on, one game off Real career against Osasuna after an eye-catching performance in the Celta game and Kaká exemplified the uncertainty running through the squad when he was sent off after barely a quarter of an hour on the field. The referee might have exercised the law of "previous" in the case of the Brazilian, who is hardly noted for plowing his elbow into the face of opponents. But Kaka's second yellow, for preventing a quick free-kick, sums up Real at the moment. Edgy, nervous and out of sorts.

Kaka's red was Real's third in as many games and his first as a Merengue. There is little sweet on the end of the lemon Mourinho is sucking at the moment. Valencia is quite capable of stuffing some orange down his throat at the moment as well. But the domestic cup is the least of the Real coach's concerns; it had a mollifying effect in his first season as Real had not won it since 1993. The same trinket will do little to appease the Bernabeu this time around.

And that's where Manchester United looms large. Sir Alex Ferguson's team is hardly firing on all cylinders this season but while Madrid couldn't overcome Osasuna, United held off Liverpool for a 2-1 win to maintain its lead at the top of the Premier League. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, who knows a thing or two about bulging the old onion bag himself, identified Robin van Persie as the main differential in the title race in England this season and the Dutchman was again on target against the Anfield outfit on Sunday.

One of the surprises of the summer transfer market for this observer was how Van Persie ended up at United at all. Arsenal would clearly have preferred to sell its star asset to a foreign club rather than a direct domestic competitor and its underwhelming season so far is only exacerbated by the form of its former favorite son in the north. For 24 million euros, Real could have had the bargain of both of Florentino Perez's eras at the club.

The Champions League tie between Real and United is the make-or-break 180 minutes of Mourinho's tenure at the club, despite two semifinal appearances after several years of abject failure in the competition. Defeat may bring his reign to a swifter conclusion than anybody envisaged at the start of the season. Anything other than a last four date with Barcelona in the domestic cup competition could see the Portuguese in Spain's expansive unemployment line even before then.

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