Madrid must get results against Barcelona and Manchester United for José Mourinho to leave a legacy at the Bernabéu
Real Madrid and José Mourinho have eight days. Eight days to define a season and, quite possibly, a legacy; eight days around which to define an exit strategy too. When it comes to knockout tournaments, promise and threat are always two sides to the same coin but for Madrid, and for their manager, that sensation is deepened. On Tuesday night they face Barcelona away in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg at Camp Nou, having drawn 1-1 in the first; on Saturday they play Barcelona again in La Liga at home and next Tuesday they travel to Manchester United in the Champions League, again having drawn 1-1 at home in the first leg.
Barcelona, Barcelona, United. It is some journey, destination unknown. 6 March is Real Madrid's birthday. By then, their season could have ended. Trailing Barcelona by 16 points in a league championship that Mourinho has already declared "impossible", they must get positive results at Camp Nou and Old Trafford in order to avoid elimination in the two remaining competitions, the "only" things they have left.
Or, to put it another way, they could still be on course for a Copa del Rey final, having knocked out their bitterest rivals on route, and continuing their path towards a historic 10th European Cup – and the European Cup eclipses all else, always. Madrid's task may not prove as huge as is presupposed either: two draws may be sufficient. Two 2-2s and they will go through.
That is far from impossible: Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in his past five visits to Camp Nou and three of Madrid's last four results there would put them through: 2-2, 3-2, 1-2, 2-2.
That underlines the fact that something similar can be said of Barcelona, only with less drama: the impact of an exit in the Copa or in Europe, where they have to overturn a 2-0 deficit against Milan, would be enormous but the league will be theirs and they face their challenges over 15 days, not eight. For Barça, "failure" in this fortnight would be relative but it would still be real.
The managerial factor differentiates the teams too: for Mourinho this may be about more than just this season but his time in Spain. He is a collector and he has collected one of the things he came for – a Spanish league title to go with championships in Portugal, England and Italy – and he did what Madrid most needed him to do, knock Barcelona off their perch. He has not collected the other trophy he seeks – a third European Cup with a third team – but while he would have seen Madrid as a grand opportunity to do so, there will be other chances. "I will not retire without it," he said before the first leg versus United. "But I do not know if that will be here."
Yet Mourinho also knows that how he is remembered at Madrid probably depends on this week. These have been difficult years for him in Spain and he clearly has not enjoyed his time as he did in England; he flirts with the Premier League at virtually every opportunity. Asked what he so liked about England a fortnight ago, he said: "Everything".
The only thing that can keep him in Madrid is an inability to broker a decent deal to depart or find a destination that suits him. His options, usually supposed to be infinite, are rather few. What happens over these season-defining eight days influences that.
There are those Madrid supporters who defend Mourinho to the last and others who are fond of him, but he has had critics among Madrid's fans. A division has opened up which will be difficult to heal; the post-Mourinho era may prove complex. He has even been whistled on occasion and confrontations have been provoked between those for and against. The tension is palpable. Results can resolve those to some extent. These results are vital, the Champions League above all.
Emotions apart, Mourinho has constructed his identity on concrete achievements, objective exhibits that broker little argument. Essentially his discourse is "I win". That leaves him in a difficult position when he does not, and whether he is regarded as the kind of huge success he was in England and Italy depends largely on these matches.
If Madrid do not get through it will not only mean that their season is effectively over with three months remaining, it will also mean that his record over three years at Madrid with the most expensive team in history will read: one league and one cup. Two major titles from a possible nine.
Get these eight days right and it reads very differently, potentially becoming four from nine, three of them wrested from Barcelona and one of them the trophy Madrid have waited more than a decade for – the 10th European Cup, the most symbolic of all. On the other side of the divide, get these 15 days wrong and Barcelona will know that the league title they already have in the bag is likely to be overshadowed; it will be hard to avoid a feeling of decline as they play out the season plodding towards a league title they already knew they had won.
Because the league is beyond Madrid, there is a chance that the team Mourinho chooses for Saturday's game in that competition will be conditioned by what went before and what comes next, just as the time has been: Madrid petitioned for a 4pm kick-off, meaning that the game cannot be shown live in the UK, in order to have the greatest amount of time possible to prepare for the infinitely more significant match at Old Trafford.
Mourinho will take no risks but nor will he be able to treat it as if it does not matter at all. It is still another chapter in arguably the greatest rivalry in sport.
What kind of a chapter is a different matter. Sir Alex Ferguson's eye will be cast over the league meeting with Barcelona, for sure, but it will surely not be drawn towards it too greatly. Mourinho will not reveal much. It may prove the most decaffeinated clásico anyone can remember. Tuesday night, the first of eight decisive days, certainly will not.