In a week of two major Champions League upsets, one has opened a door for José Mourinho while the other has served only to further diminish his scarred reputation.
Real Madrid‘s 4-1 defeat to Ajax at the Bernabéu brought an end to their 1,012-day reign as champions of Europe in the most embarrassing style. Los Blancos had been outplayed in the first leg but escaped with a 2-1 victory. Scare overcome, their safe passage to the quarter-finals seemed a formality.
But Madrid were torn to shreds by a vibrant young Ajax side and, coupled with back-to-back home losses to rivals Barcelona the week before, it is widely reported that Santiago Solari will pay with his job. Mourinho, whom the Madrid fans chanted for on Tuesday night, is “almost 100 per cent” certain to reassume the throne for the crumbling continental kings, according to The Telegraph.
A route back in at the very summit of the game, then, for Mourinho. But might this be his last chance to sit at European football’s top table?
Since being sacked by Manchester United in December, the club have embarked upon the kind of run of results that would have been scarcely conceivable under the Portuguese’s charge. Where Mourinho reigned through fear, politicking and self-preservation, caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has, in his short time in charge, made United greater than the sum of their parts by lifting the dark cloud Mourinho cast.
United’s only defeat in the 17 games Solskjær has overseen is their 2-0 last-16 first-leg reverse against Paris Saint-Germain at Old Trafford in February, but they righted that wrong in spectacular, odds-defying fashion on Wednesday night, triumphing 3-1 thanks to a stoppage-time Marcus Rashford penalty to eliminate the Ligue 1 champions on their own patch.
And they did it while missing ten first-team players though injury and suspension. They did it – Solskjær did it – while giving a debut to a gifted 17-year-old from the club’s academy as they chased the game. Solskjær did by engendering belief and fostering a collegiate spirit; there doesn’t appear to be any divisions in the squad anymore. Gone the chasm between the manager and his chosen black sheep that marked out Mourinho’s final months in charge.
It is interesting to note that Anthony Martial, injured and watching on from home, posted a video on Instagram of him celebrating Rashford’s strike by repeating, in his native French, “What character,” after Mourinho had said in an interview that Rashford and United’s other youngsters lacked exactly that.
“I don’t want an internal conflict,” Mourinho told The Telegraph recently, speaking about his vision for his next job. At first it seemed as though the 56-year-old was reflecting inward, recognising that the rifts he sought at United were his downfall.
But as he continued it became clear it was a thinly veiled barb at the club. Mourinho’s termination settlement prevents him from discussing club matters explicitly, but he has cleverly alluded to the issues at board level he believes – with some validity – hamstrung him at Old Trafford.
“I want internal empathy,” he said. “I want to work in a club that understands there is a structure in place.
“During my career I have been working in every possible circumstance. The most successful situations are not because of the structure but because of the empathy in the structure.
“I want to work with people that I love. People I want to work with, that I am happy to work with, with whom I share the same ideas.”
Knowing Mourinho, knowing the context, it’s impossible to hear him speak of wanting to work with people who “share the same ideas” as little more than him outlining his need to be agreed with and kowtowed to.
He won’t find that in Madrid. He might well be Florentino Pérez’s choice but he won’t be Sergio Ramos’, the influential captain reportedly less than thrilled at the prospect of a Mourinho return when it was first mooted earlier in the season.
And the structure Madrid once had, the structure Mourinho craves, has corroded.
Luka Modrić’s Ballon d’Or now looks like a bookend to his half a decade or so spent as the world’s best midfielder, his powers having waned alarmingly this season. And the Croatian’s midfield cohorts Casemiro and Toni Kroos, experienced stalwarts of past Champions League glory, no longer appear fit for purpose.
Cristiano Ronaldo has gone and Karim Benzema, for all his gifts, isn’t scoring enough.
Madrid need someone prepared to build around their emerging young stars, rather than rely on ageing experience – that doesn’t sound much like the Mourinho we know.
Eighteen-year-old Brazilian attacker Vinícius Júnior – injured on Tuesday night – has quickly established himself as Los Blancos‘ most important player, while 22-year-old Sergio Reguilón has usurped Marcelo at left-back.
Isco must be brought back in from the cold, having been ostracised by Solari, and Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente need to be given the chance to show they can do better than those currently underperforming in their positions.
Moreover, this is a squad which has shown it responds best to a more modern, empathetic and collegiate style of man-management; the kind Zinedine Zidane used so well in winning three straight Champions Leagues, the kind Solskjær is demonstrating at Old Trafford; the antithesis of Mourinho.
Mourinho has always delivered silverware, wherever he has gone. There has long been an understanding that the competitive tension he channels to his benefit comes at a cost, bridges often burned at the end of a three-season cycle; the snap-back effect is absorbed because of the success he all but guarantees.
But his last three posts in particular – his first spell in Madrid, second with Chelsea and last with United – have been different, more acrimonious and toxic at their denouement, while the trophies are becoming fewer and further between, and in the case of his League Cup and Europa League at United, not really the ones desired. The band is wound tighter and stretched shorter, the snap-back more violent.
The game has changed – players have changed – around Mourinho in the years since his Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale peak, and he has thus far shown little capacity to change with it.
At the Bernabéu, Mourinho will be walking into a mess that will require the Midas touch he has shown in his best days. But it must be wrapped in a velvet glove, not delivered with an iron fist.