DERMOT CORRIGAN: United beware as Real believe again

Just a week ago Real Madrid’s season — and Jose Mourinho’s term at the club — seemed on the verge of petering out with a whimper.

Mourinho’s side were 16 points adrift of Barcelona in La Liga. He had fought publicly with half his squad, including captains Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, and even talismanic attacker Cristiano Ronaldo. There were also serious injury problems, the worst being longtime keeper Casillas’s broken hand.

The 1-1 against Manchester United in their Champions League last 16 first leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on February 11 fed these concerns. United had an away goal through Danny Welbeck’s header. More worryingly, Madrid’s players had looked painfully short on ideas and belief when labouring to break down a defence which has often looked porous in the Premier League.

Mourinho added to the tension after that game by publicly blaming Ramos for Welbeck’s goal, and claiming United could not ‘park the bus’ again at Old Trafford: “Given British culture, I don’t think United will play again with all their defenders in their half,” he said. “Many teams have scored in Old Trafford this season, without the attacking potential we have.”

This seemed said more in hope than expectation. But in the last week belief has come surging back, via two wins in six days over eternal La Liga rivals Barcelona.

Last Tuesday Madrid went to the Camp Nou and comprehensively destroyed the side that Josep Guardiola built, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s double strike bringing a 3-1 scoreline which did not fully reflect the dominance of Mourinho’s side.

Then on Saturday at the Bernabeu an almost reserve side, with Ronaldo on the bench and Xabi Alonso in the stand, beat Barca again, this time 2-1. Even the names of the goalscorers were welcome — Karim Benzema netted days after being charged with driving at 216kph in his Audi RS5 4.2 FSI, while Ramos reaffirmed his commitment by heading the winner.

“This goal was very important for me,” the defender told reporters. “We have not won a trophy yet, but we have delivered an authoritative blow. We are going to Old Trafford convinced we can win.”

Ronaldo will also surely be super-confident on his return to his former stomping ground tomorrow. The Portuguese has 16 goals in 12 starts in 2013 and, most importantly of all, has completely outshone previous nemesis Lionel Messi.

Everywhere Madrid have players in form. Teenage French centre-half Raphael Varane is showing startling poise and maturity. Winger Angel Di Maria looks back to his best. Playmaker Mesut Ozil is in sublime touch. The only worries are Diego Lopez’s shakiness as Casillas’s replacement in goal, and Alonso’s persistent groin problem, which still needs careful management.

Assistant coach Aitor Karanka tried to keep the celebrations in check on Saturday.

“People said this could all be a disaster, and the season could be over already,” Karanka said. “Things are going well, but we must keep working the same. We have nothing to celebrate yet.”

That is because this season has always likely been Mourinho’s last at Madrid, and the target has always been La Décima, a fabled 10th European Cup. Win this and the Special One can leave this summer “through the main gate”, as they say in Spain, his reputation enhanced still further.

Madrid have made great strides in the last week, but the biggest challenge is still ahead.

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