Mourinho’s Nemesis: that was how tonight’s gunfight at the Old Trafford Corral was shaping up just five weeks ago.
Real Madrid’s young French centre-back Raphael Varane had played the match of his life to defy Barcelona in the first leg of their cup semi-final before crowning his performance with a headed equaliser nine minutes from the end.
Then, moments from the end, Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba burst through on the left and let fly from the edge of the box. It was one of those shots that good goalkeepers save. But Iker Casillas was injured and Diego Lopez was making his first appearance for Madrid since leaving the club in 2007.
As much as the save itself it was his confidence — standing up and swatting the ball into the crowd as if it were an annoying wasp — that made it feel like a turning point. And so it proved — 1-1 was not an ideal result any more than the 1-1 in the first leg against United, but all of a sudden a season of failure appears to be turning round.
Real still haven’t looked too convincing in run-of-the-mill games. Deportivo La Coruna are bottom of the table, and although the Riazor stadium is one of those places where it is “never easy to go”, Madrid looked likely to lose until Ronaldo replaced Marcelo in the second half; and even then they only scored the winner with two minutes left.
In the big games they are a different proposition. It is a very long time since they beat Barcelona in two consecutive games, let alone in the space of five days. Barca are going through a sticky patch, but even so for Madrid to rest key players in the league game was a sign of confidence as well as the club’s priorities.
Ronaldo came on in the second half, just as in Coruna, and again had a big influence. Not surprisingly the pre-match build-up for tonight has focused on his possible contribution.
Yet just as much is likely to depend on the two heroes of that match against Barca — Varane and Lopez.
The goalkeeper’s career has the potential for one of those romantic tales about the boyhood fan who has to leave his club only to return in their hour of need and help them to glory.
Madrid originally took him on quite late — he was already 20 when he joined their C team in the third division. He duly progressed through the B team and eventually to the first team squad, where he made his debut in 2006, in the league against Osasuna and in the Champions League against Olympiacos.
With Casillas ahead of him his chances were bound to be limited and he was signed by Villarreal for €6m, helping them to second place in La Liga, their highest-ever finish, and a good performance in the Champions League.
Villarreal’s golden years have passed: they were relegated last season, when Lopez moved to Sevilla. But they included no less than four 0-0 draws with United — two with Lopez in goal, including a memorable home-leg performance where he defied them almost on his own. One save at the end of the first half when he turned the ball against the crossbar had Ronaldo shaking his head in disbelief. His return to Old Trafford with Ronaldo as a team-mate this time should hold few fears for him, although he has had the occasional rocky match over the years.
His pride at returning to his old club, especially to replace Casillas, has been evident.
“I’m very emotional about it, and happy,” he said. “It took a great deal for me to reach the first team at Madrid. It was a hard road and I had to work a lot and strive a lot. I left because it was tough competing with Iker and I believed I would have better opportunities at another club.
“To come back here was hard to take in. To return to the club of my heart, to the club that created and formed me, is both very good and very special.”
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