Two men can't fight if one does not want to – and the man with the bloodshot eye and the melancholic gaze didn't want to. Instead, there was a quick, silent shake of the hand, a wordless greeting, and the white flag was raised. No resistance, and no mercy. Last night Real Madrid tore Málaga apart, battering them 7-0. But Málaga's manager did not care; or said he did not. Cunning or cowardice, that was the question.
This was the encounter everyone had eagerly awaited since November but if it was a fight they were after then they might as well not have bothered. After all, Manuel Pellegrini didn't.
Late last night, Pellegrini returned to the Santiago Bernabéu for the first time since leaving Real Madrid in May. These days, he is coach of Málaga and things aren't going well: Málaga are second bottom. It was time for Pellegrini to face his tormentors and they were waiting for him, knives sharpened. But yet again, he shirked the conflict – on and off the pitch.
It is a familiar tactic. Perhaps one fine day the editor of Marca came home to find the coach of Real Madrid in bed with his wife. Or maybe Pellegrini had rejected his amorous advances. Nothing else, surely, can explain the viciousness and relentlessness of the campaign launched against him when he was Madrid coach. There could be no other reason for the obsession, the bitterness, the sheer bloody-mindedness, the irrational hate. Or maybe there could: if Pellegrini was concerned at the fact that they attacked him, more telling was the fact that they could.
The day Pellegrini arrived at Madrid, the talk was of patience and project. The first call for his head came in October – and they kept on coming. Everything Pellegrini did was wrong; everything he did right was because of someone else. His players saved him from himself; he destroyed them despite themselves. Even when Marca set up Madrid-Villarreal as "Pellegrini on trial" only for his side to win 6-1, they did not relent. Even when he was polite and calm and unmoved, they tried to move him. They wound him up, but he never uncoiled, noting simply: "I should thank the editor of Marca for making me so famous." So they tried some more.
When he joined Málaga, Marca declared him the "worst" thing about their game. His crime? To take Málaga to a first home win of the season and take them off the bottom in his first match in charge.
Whether Pellegrini was a good coach or not – and few would seriously claim he is better than José Mourinho – the attacks were brutal and senseless. He was hardly provocative; he rarely made excuses, ranted or shifted blame. And he hadn't even been that bad. Madrid had been humiliated in the Copa del Rey and were eliminated from the Champions League. But everyone else had been knocked out at that stage too – for each of the past six years. And in the league, Madrid challenged Barcelona; beaten just 1-0 at the Camp Nou, they had more points at this stage last season than Mourinho's team do now. A late winner against Sevilla meant that at this stage they were top. Now they are seven points behind. They went into the final day with a chance of winning the title. And racked up 96 league points – a club record.
But at the end of the season, he was gone. Just as everyone knew he would be. So, with the return nigh and the campaign sparked up once more, Pellegrini pointed that out this week, describing 2009-10 and the "best season in the club's history". Which was a pretty dumb thing to say about a club with nine European Cups and 31 league titles, that could still win something this season with the league title race still alive, a Copa del Rey final to come and an away goal in Lyon in the Champions league. He, after all, had won nothing. And since he has taken over Málaga there's no sign of him winning anything either: Qatari owners and five new signings have done little for them. They have won just once in 12 matches; this morning they sit second bottom – much to his detractors' delight.
Meanwhile, Mourinho was being asked if he feared suffering the same fate as Pellegrini if he finishes this season empty-handed. In a fantastically feisty press conference in which said he didn't mind being "everyone's punchbag", he replied bluntly: "No. Because if I get sacked here I won't go to Málaga; I will go to a big club." Let's face it, it was true. But the truth hurts. The president of the Málaga government, Salvador Pendón, hit back. "I always knew that Mourinho was rude and spoilt, now he has confirmed it," he said. "He is a total clown."
This time it was personal. Not only had Madrid hammered Pellegrini – but now their manager was hitting out at Málaga. He had questioned their honour, and few things get sensitive soccer souls going like a "lack of respect". The gauntlet was thrown down. You, sir, are a cad. I challenge you to a duel!
Yeah, right. Some duel. Them may be fighting words but there was no fighting. Pellegrini was met with timid applause but mostly with indifference; there was no simmering anger or even much sympathy; the greeting with Mourinho was cold but polite, and on a Thursday night at 10pm there was a Thursday night at 10pm attendance. And, anyway, Madrid versus Málaga was always likely to be David versus Goliath.
Mourinho's side were irresistible, Benzema getting two and Ronaldo a hat-trick to take him to 27 for the season, level with Messi (or one ahead of him if you believe Marca, who called him "Pichichón" this morning – a big Pichichi). But Málaga's defence, which has conceded 58 goals this season, 14 more than anyone else, a defence that's so bad they signed Martín Demichelis for goodness sake, was so unconvincing even Jeffrey Archer wouldn't use it. An offside trap that trapped no one aided the first; the second came via a Málaga corner, a misplaced header, a defender who missed the ball entirely and a 50-yard stroll through the middle for Angel Di María; and everyone stood and watched, cooing "Oooh, nice pass", as Di María scooped over to Marcelo for the third.
Every week, you wonder why Málaga are where they are. Last night, you saw the reason. This wasn't just David against Goliath, it was David against Goliath with David laying down his slingshot and saying: "Actually, I think I'll wait until that little fella turns up and fight him instead, thanks very much." Homer Simpson passing on fatherly advice: can't win, don't try. Having faced Almería on Monday and with Osasuna to come on Sunday, with Júlio Baptista and Sergio Asenjo injured, Pellegrini left Apoño, Rondón, Maresca, and Seba Fernández on the bench. "And," he said, "I would have left out more players too if I could."
"We knew we were risking a thrashing," Pellegrini added. "With so many players injured and such a short rest we could not expect a good result against Madrid. I was completely clear that we didn't have a chance. We have to prioritise the game against Osasuna. It would have been irresponsible to give our all here and be tired on Sunday. Osasuna and Almería are our finals, not this." Out in the mixed zone, one player was listening in, anger simmering away, furious with his coach.
That might have been an excuse, a little boy's "I didn't want to play this stupid game anyway"; it might have been an attempt to explain away a desperate display; it might even been a subtle dig at Mourinho and at Madrid, an attempt to undermine their victory and unmask them. Above all, though, it was familiar. Pellegrini had done exactly what Manuel Preciado did when Sporting went to Barcelona earlier in the season and played a weakened line-up that provoked a huge confrontation with Mourinho. Only Preciado's side lost by one, not seven. Only this time Mourinho didn't mind one bit.
It was supposed to be a war but however much they attacked, Manuel Pellegrini had decided not to wage it. He had taken a decision: he who runs away lives to fight another day. Which is fine if you fight another day and win. But lose on Sunday and it won't just be Marca out to get him. Lose on Sunday and, rather like his team, Manuel Pellegrini will have no defence at all.
Week 26 results and talking points
• The bad news for Madrid is that Cristiano Ronaldo pulled up after scoring the third goal with a muscle strain. He's set to be out for the next 10 days. He had played every minute of the season until now; the only ever-present outfield player in the league. The other bad news for Madrid is what happened the night before at Mestalla.
• Barcelona's No2, Tito Villanova, turned to Pep Guardiola and gave him a big, excited pat on the back. To which Guardiola could only say: "Ow! You bastard!" The Barcelona coach had gone through the pain barrier to accompany his side in Valencia; now he is in hospital with a slipped disc and looks likely to miss out on his side's match with Zaragoza tomorrow. But if he was hurting, he was happy. Barcelona had just taken what they considered to be a huge step towards the title by beating Valencia 1-0 at Mestalla. It is the first time that Guardiola has beaten them there – Valencia had not lost in 11 home games against Guardiola as a player and manager - and the degree of respect and concern was shown by him going for a strange formation with sort-of wingbacks that could almost be called 3-5-2. Ish. This game, more than any other, was the one where Barcelona could see themselves coming unstuck. But they didn't. The formation didn't appear to entirely work at first – although Barcelona withstood Valencia's excellent pressure and created a handful of superb chances – but after a second-half switch back to 4-3-3, Messi, eventually, got the winner. "Half a league!" declared Sport. "Half a league!" declared El Mundo Deportivo, imaginatively.
• Welcome back Ikechuwku. After 17 months out through injury, the Nigerian finally made his return for Real Zaragoza – and scored the winning goal to lift his side out of the relegation zone. No wonder he was in tears. Zaragoza's win came against Athletic Bilbao, who played without a single Vizcaya-born player for the first time in their entire history. That's 113 years. Still all Basques, mind. (And before you all go bonkers: yes, yes, according to their footballing-development, occasionally elastic definition of Basque).
• After last weekend's assault on Fernando Llorente from David Navarro and his subsequent insult-to-injury-adding, Oscar-winning performance, the Valencia coach, Unai Emery, chose to leave the defender out against Barcelona. But the Valencia newspaper Super Deporte decided that they were not going to let it lie. During Zaragoza's match with Athletic they saw Llorente jump with his arm and pounced. Jumped up with his arm, note. That's: jumped up with his arm and lightly brushed the face of the man marking him. Not: elbowed two players in the face, drew blood, left one needing stitches and then acted as if dead despite there being sod-all wrong with him. Having had plenty of previous. "The good guy mask slips," howled Super Deporte, "revealing Llorente's hypocrisy." "Llorente breaks a defender's nose," they continued. And they were right too. If for "nose" they meant "thigh". And if by "break" they meant "strained". Oh, and if by "Llorente" they meant "no one at all, it just kind of happened in a totally unrelated play at a totally different time".
• And good to see Depor back to doing what they do best. Or more to the point, good not to see it.
Results: Espanyol 1–2 Mallorca, Sevilla 3-0 Sporting, Zaragoza 2–1 Atlético, Villarreal 1–0 Hércules, Osasuna 0–0 Deportivo, Real Sociedad 1–1 Levante, Valencia 0–1 Barcelona, Almería 1–1 Racing, Madrid 7–0 Málaga.
(And tomorrow it all starts up again. That'll be league football on 10 of the last 11 days.)