DERMOT CORRIGAN: How the Special aura was lost

On Friday night, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone was asked how his lowly side had overcome star-strewn neighbours Real Madrid to win the 2013 Copa del Rey final 2-1 in extra-time.

“Without ‘the group’, there is no team,” Simeone said. “You might have great players, but no team.

“And we have a group, and a team.”

The message was clear — Madrid might have Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Mesut Ozil et al, but Simeone’s plucky players had worked harder, ran further and believed more.

Losing boss Jose Mourinho probably agreed. Mourinho himself said something similar last September after Madrid’s limp 1-0 defeat at Sevilla saw Barcelona sprint clear in the La Liga race.

“I’m worried about my team, not the points gap,” he said then. “At this moment I have no team.”

Looking back now, the moment when Mourinho lost his team came late in August 2011’s ‘Supercopa’ second leg at Barca’s Camp Nou. With Madrid about to lose, a foul by Marcelo on Cesc Fabregas sparked the touchline melee during which Mourinho infamously poked then Barca assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye, and the usually docile Ozil was sent off for fighting David Villa. Even club captain Iker Casillas joined in, wrongly accusing Fabregas of diving during a post-match interview. This was Madrid’s ‘group’ sticking together, through thick and thin, supporting each other — and their boss — no matter what.

Casillas couldn’t do it though. A few days later he rang his international team-mates Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol to patch things up ahead a Euro 2012 qualifier. Mourinho responded by temporarily dropping the ‘treasonous’ goalkeeper and pointedly telling reporters “Casillas is not untouchable”.

Even though Madrid went on to win the 2011/12 Spanish title, with a record points total and Casillas between the posts, the seeds of Mourinho’s ultimate failure at the Bernabeu were sown. ‘The Special One’ is not a master tactician, or revolutionary strategist. His genius (like Simeone’s) lies in motivating and binding players by getting them to believe in him 100%. If this belief drops, even one notch, then he and his team are in trouble.

Mourinho’s moulding of the group — with him as its undisputed leader — brought long dreamed of success in Portugal, England and Italy, but has ultimately failed in Spain. Players like Deco at Porto, Frank Lampard at Chelsea, and Samuel Eto’o at Inter Milan, were willing to subjugate themselves to his will, but Madrid’s stars were not.

World Cup winners Casillas and Ramos, but also others in a squad containing the most talented players of Germany (Ozil), Portugal (Ronaldo) and France (Karim Benzema), gradually lost belief in their boss.

Last month’s Champions League semi-final exit to Borussia Dortmund ended any remaining pretence at unity. Five days later Ronaldo allegedly celebrated a goal against Valladolid at the Bernabeu by telling Mourinho to “go fuck yourself”, and even Pepe — formerly his coach’s most loyal enforcer — took Casillas’ side during a post-game interview.

Without the ‘group’ Mourinho had little left. Individual genius, especially from Ronaldo, means Madrid can easily beat most teams in Spain, but Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp exposed the Portuguese coach’s tactical limitations in Europe, while the togetherness of Simeone’s Atletico was too much in the Copa final.

Friday even brought a repeat of the Camp Nou sideline scuffle after a frustrated Ronaldo was red carded late on. Mourinho was not involved this time, earlier sent off himself. It is quite possible he now feels let down by his players, most of all Casillas, as he believes if the group had stuck together (followed him unquestionably) the fabled ‘decima’ European Cup would have arrived.

But they couldn’t, it didn’t, and Mourinho will now leave Madrid having failed for the first time in his career.

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