How Mourinho's Madrid Became the “Nearly Men” of the Champions League

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How Mourinho's Madrid Became the “Nearly Men” of the Champions League
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

There is likely to be no Decima for Jose Mourinho.

When Real Madrid pried the Portuguese manager from Champions League winners Inter Milan in 2010, the then-47-year-old was given a straightforward mandate. He was to deliver the club’s 10th European Cup—the elusive Decima—and guide the continent’s most successful side to the top of the mountain for the first time since 2002.

And, if he could knock Barcelona off their perch in La Liga, even better.

Three years later, with his future up in the air following Madrid’s Champions League semifinal defeat to Borussia Dortmund, it’s likely Mourinho will exit the Spanish capital having achieved only the former, and very much secondary, objective.

He even hinted at a move in a post-match interview with ITV, saying, “I love to be where people love me to be.” A come-and-get-me plea to former club Chelsea if ever there was one.

But about the match itself, there was little insight he could provide. After praising the spirit of his players, he expressed his disappointment with referee Howard Webb, saying, “I am very disappointed with one of my favourite referees. It was a red card for Mats Hummels. He saw it; everyone saw it.” (ITV)

It was a remark that stirred memories of his remarks following his first semifinal defeat with Madrid—against Primera Division archrivals Barcelona in 2011.

A furious Jose Mourinho goes on a tirade after losing to Barcelona in 2011.

After a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou that saw his side fall 3-1 on aggregate to the Catalans, Mourinho went on a tirade that included everything from Barcelona’s relationship with UNICEF to Royal Spanish Football Federation president Angel Maria Villar, who he accused of favouring his opponents. (Telegraph)

The following year, after exiting yet another Champions League semifinal, he was rather more gracious in his comments, perhaps because his side had actually won the second leg against Bayern Munich before going out on penalties.

At the time he commended his team for making consecutive semifinals, adding that he, himself, must have done well to have reached six of the last eight.

He can now make it seven of the last nine. But there’s another statistic he won’t be quite as excited about. Not since Leo Beenhakker’s successive semifinal defeats 24 years ago (in 1987, 1988 and 1989) has a manager lost three European Cup semifinals in a row. And with the players Mourinho has had at his disposal the last three seasons, it’s astonishing that on Tuesday he equalled the mark.

Mourinho was rather more gracious after losing on penalties to Bayern Munich last season.

Lack of quality at the full-back positions has certainly been a consistent problem during his Madrid tenure. Although both Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao add an attacking outlet on the left, neither can be said to be world-class in their defensive abilities. Right-back Alvaro Arbeloa, meanwhile, didn’t even figure in either leg of this latest semifinal.

Given the attacking instincts of wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel di Maria, this is something that should have been rectified long ago. Madrid have long been vulnerable in the wide areas of their defensive third, and in the first leg in Germany, both Marco Reus and Jakub Blaszczykowski had limitless freedom down the flanks.

Strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema have also been insufficient, at least for a team with the profile of Real Madrid. Neither would get regular football at any of this season’s other semifinalists, and that Madrid don’t have a third option to the pair of them is mind-boggling. If Madrid are to be found lacking depth at any position, it should never be up top.

But the biggest detriment to Madrid’s inability to get past the semifinals has been Mourinho, himself.

In each of the past three years, the Spanish giants have lost the first leg of their final four matchup, and in each of them, Mourinho approached the occasion with far too much caution. More and more the first match of a two-legged tie—especially late in the Champions League—has been even more important than home-field advantage—something that is likely down to advanced tactical awareness and the ease of European travel.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Mourinho has hinted he's heading back to Chelsea in the summer.

Coming into last week’s matches, each of the last 10 Champions League semifinal ties (going back five years) had been won by a team that either won or drew the opening leg. Defeat, in every instance, spelled disaster. The last team to win a semifinal after losing the first match was AC Milan, who were beaten 3-2 by Manchester United in 2007 before whipping the Premier League side 3-0 a week later.

Mourinho’s decision to start each of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric in the first leg against Dortmund indicated he was more concerned with limiting chances than creating them—an approach that backfired when Madrid scored just a single goal (thanks to a Mats Hummels error) and were punished repeatedly on the flanks.

Mourinho’s strategy was wrong; his psychology was wrong. And once again he has only excuses to explain away the latest defeat of his “Nearly Men.” 

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