Mourinho, Madrid earn sweet vindication
Real Madrid finished the Spanish season in record-breaking style, with a 4-1 victory over Real Mallorca at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, making them the first team ever to claim 100 Primera División points.
A capacity crowd of 80,925 happy blancos fans witnessed another remarkable Madrid victory, and then stuck around for an emotional ceremony, during which captain Iker Casillas lifted the club's 32nd Spanish league trophy.
As well as breaking the 100 point barrier, Madrid also scored the most goals (121) in Spanish history. Other new records included most away points (50) and most away wins (16), while they also matched the club record of 15 consecutive victories, set by Miguel Muñoz’s legendary 1960-61 side.
Star forward Cristiano Ronaldo set a new club mark for individual goals scored in one year (60), and became the first player ever to score against all 19 opposition teams in a single season.
Most importantly, Madrid overcame bitter rivals Barcelona to claim their first La Liga title in four seasons.
"We have grown as a team and as a group of people,” said Madrid coach José Mourinho during Saturday’s pre-match press briefing. “We have set impressive records and won the most important title. It has been a great season. It would be impossible to improve on our numbers."
The numbers are sensational, but do not tell half the story of what was a roller-coaster season, even by Mourinho’s controversial and entertaining standards.
It began last August with a defeat to Barcelona in the curtain-raising Supercopa de España series. During a sideline dust-up, Mourinho infamously snuck up behind the Catalan club’s then assistant coach, Tito Vilanova, and poked a finger in his eye.
The drama continued in September, when Mourinho annoyed his locker room by publicly blaming midfielder Sami Khedira for a 0-1 defeat at Levante. Just before Christmas, during Barcelona’s 2-1 win in Madrid, there were angry whistles from the Bernabéu crowd directed at both Mourinho and Ronaldo.
In January, a training-ground argument pitting the coach against Casillas and defender Sergio Ramos made front page news in the Spanish sports media. Mourinho was soon in the spotlight again when he was snapped waiting in the Camp Nou car-park to harangue the referee after Madrid lost to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.
The ex-Chelsea coach was happier with the next photos to emerge, which showed him at London’s Heathrow airport during an apparent house-hunting visit to the UK in February. These were accompanied by carefully-placed stories hinting at a return to the Premier League and his former club.
The next controversy wasn’t as well stage-managed. Madrid had three players and two coaches -- including Mourinho -- sent from the field as it conceded a late equalizer to draw at Villarreal.
After the send offs, nobody at Madrid spoke to the media for a week. When the “law of silence” was finally repealed, assistant coach Aitor Karanka had taken over most of the media duties. Most fans understandably care little about who talks to journalists, but for a while results were poor and there were real fears their team were about to blow a 13 point lead.
The team rode out that storm though, just as it had all the others, and April’s comprehensive 2-1 win in the season’s final La Liga clásico all but ended Barcelona’s challenge.
That victory led to a street party at Madrid's Cibeles fountain and Sunday’s celebrations at the Bernabéu. The team was cheered throughout their final game, and even louder during the 75-minute trophy presentation, which ended in an impressive fireworks display.
Mourinho was given a huge ovation as he joined his team on the podium in the center-circle, after Casillas received the club's 32nd Spanish league trophy. He was fulsome in his praise of both his team and their fans.
“I just want to thank everyone on this magical night,” said Mourinho. “I want to say that Madrid is the best club in football history and this year's team now enters that history with 100 points. Thanks to everyone.”
The coach was not always so gracious. As his side raced to the title, there were pointed references to “real supporters” at other clubs - from tiny city neighbors Rayo Vallecano, to the Basques of Athletic Bilbao (not popular in Madrid) and especially Mourinho’s old teams Chelsea and Internazionale. The comparison with the difficult-to-please Bernabéu was clear.
This criticism was not always fair. When Madrid slipped from this season’s UEFA Champions League at the semifinal stage - with Ronaldo missing in the decisive penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich - Real’s fans loudly applauded their heroes. This was not enough for Mourinho though, who said in the post-game press conference that his team was “alone” and claimed that some supporters would be happy the team had lost.
After the title was secured the following week in Bilbao, the winning coach refused to speak to the independent Spanish media, but told Real Madrid TV he hoped the Bernabéu would finally recognize the effort these players had put in this season.
This criticism of everyone else – opposing players and coaches, the media, even their own fans -- was a deliberate strategy by Mourinho to foster a siege mentality and bind the locker-room together.
Clearly, it worked.
Despite the reported internal tension, the team showed tremendous fighting spirit throughout the season, bouncing back to win after conceding the first goal against seven La Liga opponents, and then showing a cool nerve and massive self-belief to beat Barcelona in their own back yard last month.
The record goals and points totals were incredible achievements, but they were also necessary because the level required to win the Spanish league has become so high.
Madrid’s last league title (2007/08) was achieved with 85 points, 18 more than Frank Rijkaard’s Barca managed that season. Under Josep Guardiola, and with Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and company in peak form, the Catalans had won the last three titles with 87, 99 and 96 points. Madrid finished second each year with 78, 96 and 92.
Mourinho's achievement looks even bigger when you look around Europe's other top divisions. Manchester City won this season's Premier League with 89 points and Juventus went unbeaten all season while winning Serie A, but finished with 85. Those totals would win nothing in Spain. Gaining 100 points and scoring 121 goals was necessary this season, as Madrid needed to finish ahead of probably the best club side in the history of the game.
But still, Mourinho does not seem 100 percent happy.
“This season was a nine out of ten,” he said on Saturday. “We can add a few things so that the team is stronger. We need to work on a psychological level, to maintain our levels of consistency and ambition. To improve in the Champions League is not easy, but it is possible and we will try to make another step forward. We do not want or need a new squad. Just a few players to complete the group. We will do that without pressure over the coming months.”
A positive PR campaign has begun, with a flattering interview in Spain’s conservative ABC newspaper, and a more accommodating approach to the sports press as the summer's adjustments are planned. The London visit now looks like a bargaining ploy, designed to show he was prepared to walk away if not allowed to restructure the club the way he wants.
After the Bayern loss, he commented that the club’s mentality needed to come into the 21st century -- "a car which was fantastic in the 1980s is not so good now.” Reports (officially denied, but widely believed) say former legendary player and current sporting director Zinedine Zidane could be replaced by someone who shares the coach’s more pugnacious style and will help fight battles in public.
It now looks like what Mourinho wants, Mourinho gets. Real Madrid has always prided itself on its “señorío” or gentlemanly approach; hence the complaints from some fans about their coach's antics. Even more than such abstract ideas though, Real likes winners.
And whatever else he might be -- attention-seeking, fight-picking, eye-poking, and much else -- this season has proved that José Mourinho is unquestionably a winner.
Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.