Jose Mourinho.
Jose Mourinho. SMP Images/DPPI - Franck Faugere

Mourinho's Barca test

IT WILL be his masterpiece if he finishes it, so it's only right that Jose Mourinho has had to suffer for his art. The toppling of Barcelona will maybe hang one day alongside his other great works - Chelsea's first league title for 50 years, Inter's first European Cup for 45 years - and it will be remembered as the one that nearly broke him.

It's nearly four months since he put his finger in Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova's eye with that touchline tantrum that had even his most ardent apologists cringing. And it's a year after he suffered his worst defeat when he lost his first Clasico 5-0, becoming only the second Real Madrid coach since 1945 to lose by such a heavy margin against the old enemy.

But ahead of tomorrow's showdown Mourinho is looking special again. There have been changes on and off the pitch. The smile has replaced the scowl and he spends more time in the dugout and less in the opposition's technical area. He has stopped ranting about referees and winding up opposing coaches to the point where he was delivering their team talks for them.

His team has matured and can stand up for itself without the need to have anyone fighting its corner so aggressively. As one Madrid commentator put it this week: "Mourinho has lost his bark, and Madrid have found their bite." Memories of the toothless team performance last November remain clear. "We beat Ajax 4-0 in Europe and then three days after, Barcelona beat us 5-0," he remembered on Wednesday night after watching his side complete the most impressive Champions League group stage campaign of any team in the competition's history - six wins and a plus-17 goal difference.

It was a record-equalling 15th straight win in all competitions for Mourinho. Miguel MuOoz, who won nine leagues and two European Cups as Real Madrid manager in the 1960s took a team that included Alfredo Di Stefano, Gento and Ferenc Puskas to 15 straight wins. Mourinho threatens to top that against BarAa.

Though such is Real's league advantage, tomorrow's Clasico - the seventh in this calendar year - is not a must-win fixture for them.

If Mourinho wins it he makes history with that 16th straight victory and there is also the precedent set over the last seven years that the team that wins the season's first league meeting goes on to win the League. But if his side do not collect all three points they will still hold the advantage over a rival whose stumbling away form has left them three points behind having played a game more.

"Barca will dominate the game. But that is exactly what Madrid want," said former Barcelona player and current Ajax manager Frank de Boer this week. "Madrid's strength is that the other team has the ball and then they rob it and pum pum pum." So it will be Madrid's pum pum pum against BarAa's pim-pam pim-pam. And the feeling is that Madrid's form makes them the likely victor.

Alongside the emergence of Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos's new role (see five-point plan below), the perfection of those lightning fast counter-attacks has been key and the limited tampering with the squad over the summer and the perfectly programmed physical preparation have also contributed to catching up with a Barcelona side that with the weight of so many games and targets already reached, have inevitably slowed. But there have been more profound changes too.

Even fresher in the memory than that 5-0 are the two Spanish Super Cup encounters at the start of the season. The image of Mourinho walking up behind Vilanova and poking him in the eye is one of a man going too far in the pursuit of victory.

Mourinho's reaction to the deed that night was almost as bad as the act itself - referring to the aggrieved party as "Pito" instead of Tito and refusing to admit that in the heat of the moment he had overstepped the mark. "He is ruining Spanish football," said Gerard Pique after that game. The battle wounds were festering in the Spain squad where Barcelona and Madrid players were finding it increasingly difficult to put club allegiances to one side.

There was a sense that Mourinho was poisoning everything and instead of the bravado rage steeling Madrid and reinforcing the group, it was actually motivating opponents and sapping the strength from the players it was designed to bolster.

Several of them stepped forward to voice their discontent. Much is made of a team barbecue that Mourinho organised at the end of September - one well covered by the club's communications department so keen to emphasise the fantastic atmosphere in the camp that no one was left in any doubt such an atmosphere was under threat.

The barbecue was an outward show of unity that followed behind closed-doors discussions between senior players and the coach. The manager troubled by recent results - a defeat and a draw away to Levante and Racing Santander - and the players concerned by their leader looking drained and without his usual spark.

"We have to stop talking about referees because it helps no one," said Ramos, while Iker Casillas attempted to build bridges with his Spain team-mates in the Barcelona side despite the party line being to maintain the cold war.

Other players echoed the general sentiment that making enemies at every turn was helping no one. It was a lesson that Mourinho had begun to learn last season.

The "us against the world" philosophy that served him so well in the past was having the reverse effect in Spain. Star-struck minnows ready to roll over for Madrid's visiting superstars were often given an inflated sense of importance by becoming the target of Mourinho's ire. Instead of turning up at the Bernabeu hoping to take a few photographs and swap shirts with a millionaire opponent they came looking to shut Mourinho up.

He was falling out with all the wrong people. He accused Sporting Gijon coach Manuel Preciado of fielding a weakened team against Barcelona - a cheque Preciado cashed towards the end of the season when his side beat Madrid in the run-in.

Preciado is a much loved figure in Spanish football and personal tragedies have increased the affection for him - he lost his wife to cancer and his 15-year-old son in a traffic accident. Mourinho doesn't need enemies like that.

This April when further tragedy struck and Preciado's father was also killed in a road accident, Mourinho called his old foe to offer his condolences. It wasn't just a token gesture. The two men spoke for 20 minutes and it was Preciado who made the call public.

When Guardiola's assistant Vilanova was rushed into hospital three weeks ago for an emergency operation to remove a tumour on a salivary gland, Mourinho did not wait to be asked. He started his next press conference off by saying that he wished Vilanova a speedy recovery and hoped to see him at the Bernabeu. That looked optimistic at the time but having got back on the training ground this week Vilanova will indeed be in the dugout tomorrow night.

Real Madrid directors who had become nervous about their coach's every next move have welcomed seeing this new side to their manager. Not that there is any chance of him going soft.

As he delievered his pre-match press conference in Ajax in midweek he was asked how it felt to be back at the scene of one of his recent crimes. Last season he ordered two of his players to pick up second yellow cards so they would avoid suspension in the knockout phase of the Champions League and he did it so overtly that Uefa handed him a one-match ban.

His reply - that there was one rule for him and one rule for everybody else, referring to Pique escaping punishment for doing the same thing ahead of tomorrow's game - was not translated by the Uefa interpreter and Mourinho was not going to let the mistake pass.

"No, I'm sorry. No, that's not what I said," he said. And when asked if he wanted to repeat what he had actually said he replied, "I'm not the translator". There was a hug for the interpreter as the two left the stage and the "translator" comment was made with a glint in the eye. The supporters of tomorrow's opponents never tire of reminding Mourinho that he was exactly that - a translator - when he started work at the Nou Camp.

Uefa remains in his firing line and Barcelona - fingers in eyes apart - are still public enemy No 1. The tension has been taken out of the task in hand though. Perhaps because he senses that he is closer than ever to taking the scalp - the biggest of his career so far.

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