In the dying minutes of 2011's Spanish Super Cup final second leg at the Camp Nou, a fight broke out between the players and coaching staff of Barcelona and Real Madrid close to the halfway line. It was an unholy sight. About 20 seconds into the brawl, Real Madrid's then-manager Jose Mourinho drifted into the melee. He made a beeline for Tito Vilanova, Barcelona's assistant coach—who died three years later from throat cancer—and gouged him in the eye from behind.
As Mourinho fled the scene of the crime, Vilanova turned and pushed him in the back of the neck. Dressed in a white shirt and with his head shaved, Mourinho's bodyguard stepped in to stop Vilanova from getting any further. Later in the press conference, Mourinho was asked about the incident with Tito. He said he didn't know who "Pito" was. Pito is slang in Spanish for prick.
Real Madrid's hardcore fans loved Mourinho for it. A week later, in the final pre-season game before the league kicked off, Real Madrid entertained Galatasaray at the Santiago Bernabeu. Directly in front of the directors' box, there was a huge banner that celebrated the devilment of Mourinho. It read: "Mou, your finger shows us the way."
One thing standing in Mourinho's way, however, was Barcelona. They had beaten Real Madrid 5-4 in the Spanish Super Cup. In seven encounters since Mourinho had taken charge at Real Madrid, he had only managed to beat Pep Guardiola's team once—in an engrossing 2011 Copa del Rey final at the Mestalla, which was decided by a towering Cristiano Ronaldo header in extra time. At the time, Barca had just won three league titles on the bounce and were reigning UEFA Champions League holders.
"I didn't have confidence in Real Madrid at this moment," says Oscar Sanz, a journalist with El Pais. "It was very surprising that the team went on to win 'La Liga de los Records,' breaking all these records, amassing 100 points in the league—which Barcelona equalled the following season—and shattering the goals scored record.
"That team of Mourinho's scored 121 goals, beating the old record of 107—also held by Real Madrid—in the 1989-90 season. Nobody saw this coming, especially because Mourinho is renowned for being a defensive coach, but he demonstrated that season it wasn't true. It suggests that all the controversies generated by Mourinho benefited Real Madrid in the end."
As well as his dirty tricks, Mourinho had a squad that was stocked with FIFA World Cup champions (including Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos and future winners Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira), Ballon d'Or winners (Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka) and talents such as Pepe, Marcelo and Karim Benzema, players who would end the decade with pockets full of UEFA Champions League winners medals.
Ronaldo was at the peak of his powers. He scored 46 goals in the league campaign. It was an extraordinary haul, and the most prolific season of his career. Remarkably, his tally included hat-tricks in both Madrid derbies (which only represent a fraction of the goals he's scored while tormenting Atletico Madrid over a 10-year period).
For sheer gall, one goal stood out. In Real Madrid's last game in February 2012, they made the short hop to the Vallecas Stadium to play Rayo Vallecano. The game was deadlocked when Ronaldo decided the game early in the second half. Real Madrid won a corner kick, which Ozil took. The ball bobbled in the box until it scuttled away from the penalty spot.
Ronaldo followed it and then, with his back to goal and with seemingly nothing on, he hopped once on his left foot to give himself enough lift-off to stab a fierce backheel with his right foot from eight yards out. It all happened so quickly and was such an unexpected manoeuvre that it caught Rayo's defence off-guard. The ball flew into the bottom corner of the net while Rayo's goalkeeper, Joel Robles, stood rooted to the ground.
That 1-0 win against Rayo was in the middle of an 11-game winning streak. One of their most distinctive traits was their solidity. They were a team stocked with hardened professionals who never took a step backwards. They bullied teams and could depend on either Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain, who each broke the 20-goal mark for the La Liga season, as well as Ronaldo, to complete the job.
"Real Madrid that season were a very physical team—aggressive, but not violent," says Tomas Roncero, a journalist with Diario AS. "For it to function—and to beat Barca in particular, a team which was playing like a violin at the time under Guardiola—it needed 11 players who were united and committed. Maybe because of the importance of this structure, Cristiano was more liberated in attack, but the rest of them used to go at opposition teams like they were in the army.
"Rival teams took note. Real Madrid never lost a physical battle. When Real Madrid went to Pamplona in March, for example. In other times, it used to be a hostile stadium where Osasuna fans intimidated Real Madrid, but not this team. They ate them, scoring five goals. It was because Real Madrid were more superior in the physical battle. They were warriors. Men like Sami Khedira, Pepe, Ramos. They were very difficult to beat."
Guardiola's Barcelona team—which had Lionel Messi at his most destructive and in the middle of scoring 50 league goals over the season—still had the upper hand over Mourinho. In December 2011, the teams met in the league at the Bernabeu, which Barcelona won 3-1.
The two teams met again at the same stadium in the Copa del Rey a month later—in a game that became notorious for Pepe's stamping on Messi's hand. Barca won again, 2-1 this time, which, after a 2-2 draw in the second leg, was enough for Barca to progress to the next round.
Mourinho—who Barcelona rejected when they appointed the then-novice coach Guardiola as head coach instead of him in 2008—was at breaking point. After the second leg of the cup tie at the Camp Nou, he waited in the car park, which is in the bowels of the stadium, and was photographed waiting to criticise the referee for his performance.
"The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barca, and Mourinho and Guardiola, was very intense at the time," says Roncero. "Mourinho knew how to rouse Real Madrid's fans. In Mourinho's first two seasons in charge, Real Madrid's fans listened to him. They agreed with his grievances—the mistakes that referees were making, the unfair fixture list, and so on. Before Mourinho arrived, fans felt ignored by the club. The club acted—under the direction of its president Florentino Perez—politically correctly.
"Most of time, everyone seemed against Real Madrid. People liked Barca more because of their tiki-taka style of play with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. It looked like everybody wanted Barca to win. Real Madrid were persecuted. Mourinho criticised Barca in public, in press conferences. The tension he generated passed to the pitch, and from there to the terraces. It led to a period we call 'the storm of clasicos'—a run of Madrid-Barca games each season that aroused spectacular attention and lots of controversy."
In the league title race, things came to a head when the teams met at the Camp Nou in late April 2012 on a balmy evening. There were only four rounds of games left to play after this match, and Real Madrid had the upper hand—Barca trailed Mourinho's side by four points. It was D-Day.
Khedira gave Real Madrid an early lead with a scrappy goal scored from a corner. Midway through the second half, Alexis Sanchez equalised for Barcelona. A minute later, Ozil provided the assist of the season—a 40-yard pass into the path of Ronaldo, which was hit with such nonchalance that it hoodwinked Barcelona's central defenders, Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol.
Ronaldo celebrated his goal—which effectively decided the league title race—with his famous hand-waving "calm down, Cristiano is here" message to the TV cameras assembled by the corner flag. The ingenuity from Ozil—who provided 17 assists, the most of any player in La Liga that season—was instrumental.
"Mesut Ozil had the best season of his career without a doubt," says Sanz. "He was key to everything Real Madrid did. Mourinho did something very risky in deploying Ozil because he wasn't a defensively minded player, obviously, but Mourinho constructed a barrier in the centre of the pitch with Khedira and Xabi Alonso around him so Ozil had total freedom. His back was covered."
Real Madrid's 2-1 win was the club's first league victory at the Camp Nou since 2007. The club wrapped up the league title with a 3-0 win over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames with a couple of games to spare. It was the high point of Mourinho's reign at the club. He managed to put a stop to Guardiola's dominance in Spain. The Catalan coach left Barcelona at the end of the season and—exhausted—took a year's sabbatical from the game.
"Mourinho's three years at Real Madrid were not a success," says Roncero. "For me, his only success was 'the league of the records' because it was against the greatest Barcelona team of its history and with great statistics and great football. It had a lot of merit, but the achievement is not that high in the affections of Real Madrid's fans.
"Real Madrid's 'Quinta del Buitre' team in the 1980s didn't win a European Cup, but it was the best team that I saw in my life playing football. In attack, it was a continuous symphony. The Real Madrid team that won five European Cups in a row with Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas was a machine. Di Stefano played in five consecutive European Cup finals and scored in each of them. It's something that Messi or Cristiano or Pele never achieved.
"Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' team was surely a worse team than Mourinho's Real Madrid, but it was more charming. If you see on the pitch at the same time, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and Raul passing the ball to each other, it's something to behold. Real Madrid's season of the records in 2011-2012 was fantastic, but it lacked some charm, the power to seduce you. It's a rung below the other great Real Madrid teams in its history."
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