Spy Versus Spy as Mourinho Finds Madrid’s Not Forever

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Jose+Mourinho+Florentino+PerezIt’s one of those expressions that work equally well in Spanish and English: “Mourinho Tira La Toalla A 22 Jornadas Del Final” – “Mourinho Throws In The Towel With 22 Games Left”. AS’s front page had put it in a nutshell: the game was up in the league. Maybe the game’s up for The Special One in Spain as well.

AS’s front page: Mourinho throws in the towel”

Real Madrid went into Sunday night’s game against Espanyol under yet another cloud of Mourinho’s making. Radio Marca reported last Thursday that Real’s squad are uncomfortable with goalkeeping coach Silvino, whom they consider to be a spy for Mourinho.

According to the author of the claim, Anton Meana, Mourinho summoned him for a private meeting before the Espanyol game and exploded spectacularly, making the brilliant announcement: “”In the footballing world, me and my people are at the top and in the world of journalism you are a piece of crap!” He went on to imply he’d get his revenge once he was no longer coach of Real Madrid.

So far, so fractious, but intrigue is nothing new when Mourinho is around. His departure at Chelsea was, to a small extent, precipitated by his belief that Avram Grant had been installed as a spy for Roman Abramovic, and Silvino was a player in one of Mourinho’s most entertainingly Machiavellian manouevres.

The coach was serving a touchline ban and confined to the stands, barred from contacting his coaching staff for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, but Silvino was seen constantly shuttling between the changing room and Mourinho’s seat in the stands carrying pieces of paper. His forays were usually followed by a substitution.

Perhaps Mourinho had been enjoying a boxset of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that afternoon: during the match, Mourinho also appeared to be contacting his fitness coach by an earpiece hidden under the latter’s woolly hat, and reportedly departed the ground hiding in a laundry basket!

Mourinho loves constantly stirring the media waters. The problem is, in Real Madrid he has found himself at an institution which has an inflated sense of the importance of its own dignity, and crucially is too huge to be changed or manipulated.

Which is not to suggest that before Mourinho arrived Real never knew such dramas: on the contrary, it is possibly the most political football club in the world, with an attendant media closer to a Parliamentary lobby than a sports press. Mourinho has bitten off more than he can chew by taking on such a well-established set-up.

A couple of factors mark this incident out as significant. One is the nationality of the accused coach.

Don’t picture Silvino as some supine lapdog: he played in two Champions League finals, captaining Benfica in 1990, won 23 caps and has carved out a significant career as a goalkeeping coach, following Mourinho from the days he arrived at Porto. You’ll have worked out he’s Portuguese by now, and this, coupled with his ten year association with Mourinho, fits neatly into the perceived split in the camp.

We’re regularly told the Madrid camp is split between the Portuguese-speakers and the Spaniards and last season’s success was achieved through an uneasy truce between the two camps, often by people who know what they’re talking about.

Fuel was added to that fire by Meana’s assertion that Mourinho had gone on to have a Brendan Rodgers envelope moment: “There are 21 players that get along great with Silvino and, like anywhere, there are three black sheep that harm the group.”

Mourinho often thrives by creating a creative tension, but it seems to have bubbled out of his control this season, with tales of changing room defiance and anger that he has abandoned a promise made to the senior Spanish players to draw in his horns and not court controversy so eagerly.

The other issue about Silvinogate is the fact that it was reported at all. The highly-politicised Madrid media take their lead from the club, and it was no coincidence when they speculated on Mourinho’s future in the wake of the recent defeat to Real Betis. Clearly Florentino Perez, or his people, had let the papers of the leash, a move interpreted as either a message to Mourinho or a sign his days were numbered. And now here is Marca revealing tales of changing room disharmony and distrust of the coach. You don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to work out that the tide is turning against Mourinho.

Still, at least they had an easy home game against Espanyol to improve everybody’s mood. That would be poor, useless Espanyol, in the bottom three all season and looking absolutely doomed despite the recent arrival as coach of lost cause specialist Javier Aguirre.

However, the visitors failed to roll over and die: they led for 15 minutes before conceding with the last kick of the first half, held Madrid at 2-1 through a combination of stubborn defending and heroic goalkeeping by Casilla, and snatched a point in the 88th minute when Real failed to deal with a corner.

The Madridistas weren’t happy, their dissatisfaction penetrating even the suspicious presence of a cheerleader with a megaphone who kept the positive atmosphere going in a marathon ninety-minute effort, before no doubt popping to the local Ear Nose and Throat for a retread of his vocal chords.

Mourinho didn’t really help matters after the game. While his players came out with all the right noises, defiantly claiming the league ain’t over till it’s over, he declared that the race was run and winning the league is “practically impossible.” Unaware of this, Xabi Alonso was even picked up by reporters and asked why he was contradicting his coach, and had to explain that Mourinho had surrendered the title when speaking to the team after the match.

Ominously for Mourinho, Perez has sided firmly with the players on this, pointedly repeating more than once the message that the side should not give up, before driving his point home face-to-face at Monday night’s club Christmas meal: “Together we can achieve what we have set out to. Real Madrid never gives up its sporting principles, however difficult it may be to face the challenges.”

“One should not yield, either in sport or in life.” Tuesday’s Madrid papers lead with pictures of a sour-faced Mourinho sat next to his president, who appears to be lecturing him over his Brussels sprouts, with headlines declaring “Florentino reminds Mourinho about the spirit of the team” and suggesting he has “rectified the situation” with his coach. The implication seems to be it’s the sort of rectification Tony Soprano brings to a situation. Meanwhile, Barcelona-based paper Mundo Deportivo gleefully revel in Real being “Fed Up Of Mou!”

Mourinho’s analysis of the game will hardly have helped the perceived split in the changing room to heal either. Cristiano Ronaldo had a poor game. Admittedly he scored the equaliser (though it ought to have been disallowed for a high foot) and set up the winner, but apart from that he did little, constantly losing possession in promising positions. Three shots on target in nine attempts was a serious dip from a season average of 56% of his shots being on target, although he had 50% more shots than usual. The stats didn’t lie this time: he was looking desperate.

Still, Mourinho sought to single Ronaldo out for praise in a manner unlikely to quell any jealous accusations of preferential treatment among the rest of the team:

“Cristiano played well, but his teammates, no.”

Surely Florentino Perez’s trigger finger is getting itchy. Watching his side stutter in the league – they’ve already dropped more points than they did in the whole of last season!- will have been hard to take; if he’d then tuned into Barcelona’s destruction of Atlético and heard the home fans chant to Real’s coach “¡Mourinho quedate!”, essentially “Mourinho, know your place”, he will have felt his club’s traditionally proud stature had been further eroded by his coach.

The thirteen point gap between his side and Sandro Rosell’s will be what hurts Perez most though. The last time Real allowed Barcelona to get so far ahead of them in the table was in 2008, and coach Bernd Schuster paid with his job.

There are remarkable echoes of the current situation in what happened four years ago. The German had made a similar declaration of impotence to Mourinho’s, declaring after his final match (a 4-3 home defeat to Sevilla) that it would be impossible to win the next game, against Barsa, a claim publicly contradicted by then-President Ramon Calderon and senior players Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. Unlike Mourinho, his side were only nine points behind the Catalans at the time.

The Special One is an arch-strategist both on and off the pitch. He needs to chose his next moves very carefully.

Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

aguirre Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The other Catalan club’s new coach Javier Aguirre

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Harry Redknapp isn’t the only wily veteran to take on a dysfunctional bottom of the table side this week. Javier Aguirre is a master fire-fighter but he’s taken on a massive job at Espanyol.

At least his side isn’t as far adrift of safety as Redknapp’s QPR, but that’s merely an indictment of the quality at the bottom of La Liga this season, because Los Periquitos have been awful this season, both on and off the pitch.

Both clubs seem to have been gripped by paralysis as their seasons have staggered on, unable to dismiss a coach despite the evidence of their inability to rouse their players being clear to all. The reasons for their hesitation couldn’t be more different.

Judging by his tweets, Tony Fernandes seems to have been gripped by a quaint sense of loyalty, hoping against hope that somehow Mark Hughes would justify his faith in him despite all the evidence to the contrary. Espanyol’s failure to act is a little less edifying.

The scheduling of the club’s presidential elections for this month meant it was left denuded of leadership as a nasty battle for power took precedence over supporting coach Mauricio Pochettino.

It wasn’t as if Espanyol was a finely-tuned machine which could be left to tick over on its own either. Some clubs flourish when they move into a new ground; Los Blanquiblaus certainly don’t fit into that category.

The club has stumbled along, burdened with debt, constantly selling Pochettino’s players from under him during his three years with them. Talents like Osvaldo and Jose Maria Callejon have leaked out of the club. The inevitable consequence was that eventually the coach didn’t have enough to work with.

After winning the election with 61% of the votes, and confirming that at the end of the financial year Espanyol was €144 million in debt, Joan Collet turned his attention back to the pitch and dismissed his coach.

If Pochettino is guilty of anything, it’s being too loyal. He’s a legend at the club from his playing days, holding the record for appearances, and hanging on to try and rescue them from their predicament has damaged his wider reputation, even if it has confirmed him as a decent man.

pochettino Javier Aguirre Takes on Espanyol’s Mission Impossible

The now former Espanyol coach, Mauricio Pochettino

Remarkably, he was La Liga’s longest serving boss when he was dismissed, but certainly isn’t long in the tooth. He quickly established himself at the forefront of the wave of talented, progressive young coaches that emerged across Europe at the end of the last decade, alongside the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.

The way he weaved together fluent, youthful sides on a small budget caught the eye as he helped gifted loanees like Philippe Coutinho, Vladimir Weiss and Samuele Longo to develop. Losing key players and replacing them with kids, albeit talented ones, was hardly a recipe for success though, and eventually the reality of his working conditions hit home.

Aguirre inherits a dispirited squad. They’ve lost their last four games, collapsing to a 3-0 home loss against a half strength Sevilla in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, and have won only three of their last twenty six matches going back to last March. Such is their bedraggled indiscipline that they’ve finished just seven of their sixteen games this season with eleven men.

When they stunned everyone at the start of the month by snatching a 1-0 win at Real Sociedad, their first away win since last December, they swiftly confirmed that it was a flash in the pan losing their next match 3-0 at home to Osasuna, the side they’d briefly dumped at the bottom of the table, who’d won one in twelve.

Aguirre has a reputation for lifting teams from the dumps. Two years ago he was appointed by Real Zaragoza in very similar circumstances (seven points from safety, flogging quality players like Ander Herrera and Humberto Suazo, €125 million in debt) and managed to rescue them from relegation, although twelve months on he was sacked as they sunk back into the relegation mire.

It could be argued that what he achieved there was still remarkable though: he inspired them to a scarcely believable win at Real Madrid on the way to survival, and let’s not forget that this was hardly a club which did things the right way: his predecessor Marcelinho, the man who’d got them promoted, was dismissed with a club statement which claimed:

“His legacy is the sad title of the worst defence, a place in the relegation zone, just three wins in fourteen and a first round knock-out in the cup.”

Classy.

Aguirre also enjoyed a memorable spell at Osasuna, appointed as the fulfillment of an election promise in 2002 by incoming President Patxi Izco. The little side from Navarre over-performed massively under him for four years, keeping relegation comfortably at bay and enjoying runs to the semi-final and final of the Copa del Rey as well as a taste of European football.

His spell at the Reyno de Navarra ended with his masterpiece, a fourth place finish, and earned him a move up to Atletico Madrid. He brought an element of solidity and a dash of flair to Los Colchoneros, rather as Diego Simeone has done, developing the fluent partnership between Sergio Aguerro and Diego Forlan.

Ultimately, his Atletic side didn’t quite fulfill its potential, but he shouldn’t be judged too harshly for that: tantalising under-achievement is what they generally specialise in.

He has also performed a fire-fighting job at international level, having been brought in for a second spell as Mexico manager in 2009 to rescue their World Cup qualifying campaign after Sven-Göran Eriksson’s disastrous stint in charge.

He succeeded, getting a red card for kicking an opposing player along the way, and can add that achievement to an impressive CV in international management, having led his nation to the knock-out stages of the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, the final of the Copa America, losing the final 1-0 to hosts Colombia, and a Gold Cup Final, won 5-0 against the USA at the Giants Stadium, the first time Mexico have beaten their great rivals outside away from home..

Serious, intense, intelligent, Aguirre is making a welcome back to the top level of management. His most celebrated quality, like Redknapp, is his power of motivation. He creates a fearsome fighting spirit, inspiring an intense loyalty in his players, whom he inspires to achievements that seemed beyond them.

At Zaragoza he famously made an inspirational video, getting club staff to secretly sneak around filming the players’ loved ones making impassioned pleas for victory. Having cajoled and inspired his players to an unlikely escape from relegation a local columnist suggested a statue should be erected in his honour.

If he can rescue stricken Espanyol from the mess they’re in, he’ll deserve a Christ the Redeemer-sized tribute on Montserrat!