After their Champions League triumph over Manchester United José Mourinho's powerful side look stronger than ever
It was the then Athletic Bilbao manager Joaquín Caparrós who said "you go from whore to nun in five minutes" and José Mourinho would probably agree. One of the few times that he has appeared to enjoy himself in front of the media this season came after the opening game of the Champions League campaign when two goals in the last three minutes defeated Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabéu. "I was imagining you all having to change your match reports," he grinned. This time there was no smile, just an apologetic gaze, but he must have enjoyed another narrative turned on its head.
Mourinho and his team are still standing, stronger than ever. Real Madrid were confronted by eight days that would define their season and how the coach will be remembered; eight days later and they have defeated Barcelona twice and now won at Old Trafford. A definition? How about winners? The threat was that their season would be over. Instead, it has only just begun and Madrid embark upon it with optimism. "No one believed that we could win all three games," Diego López started to say on Tuesday night before quickly correcting himself to hurriedly add: "Well, we did."
"The best team lost," Mourinho said, an eye on his own future. "I didn't feel good to be honest. It felt strange, very, very strange, and I am a little bit sad for United," said Cristiano Ronaldo, an eye on his past. López admitted that the red card for Nani conditioned the game, while the match report in Marca was entitled: "More success than magic." El País describes how "one incident propelled Madrid towards the quarters". That incident was the sending off. At the airport on Wednesday morning, Madrid fans waited to board the plane. Nani's red card was the subject of conversation. "Had it not been for that ..."
Until then, United had been the better side. Madrid had encountered familiar problems when denied the chance to run counterattacks, the space squeezed, the options narrowed: it was not just the emotion that made life difficult for Ronaldo. "Eleven against 11 the game was in their favour, they closed off very well and we couldn't create chances," López said. In the final 15 to 20 minutes United would be the better side too, for different reasons this time, and Mourinho lamented the fact that Diego López had to make key saves even with Madrid 2-1 up and with a man more.
By then, though, Madrid had clinched a definitive lead: two goals in three minutes, tie over.
When Nani caught Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso gestured to the ref. He did not wave an imaginary card; instead, he signalled his wrist, worried only about the time. Madrid may have found a way through anyway – 43 minutes was always likely to be a long time to hold out, while AS's match report breaks the trend to insist that they were the better team anyway – but here was an unexpected opportunity. Mourinho reacted swiftly. A new situation offered new solutions. Mourinho had been preparing to send on Karim Benzema but instead chose Luka Modric, withdrawing Arbeloa.
"Modric gave us the kind of qualities that we didn't have," Mourinho said, underlining why they had signed him in the first place – Plan B, Madrid-style. Modric completed 55 of 56 passes, pulled United out and brought control. He scored the first goal and was involved in the second, beautifully created by Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuaín, apologetically taken by Ronaldo. "What mattered was that we won," he noted. For the third time in eight days.
Even the most optimistic of Madrid's players did not expect this; now fans expect them be successful. "We have not won anything yet," Kaká warned. But a state of euphoria has been declared, as if Old Trafford was the final not Wembley. Wednesday is Real Madrid's birthday, founded 111 years ago by two Catalan brothers, and it is a happy one. The Copa del Rey awaits; so does la décima, the 10th European Cup. They have pursued it for a decade, but it feels close now. The headline in AS called it: "The Road to the Décima."
That Old Trafford was a staging post on route has not gone unnoticed – a place where, in David Gistau's words, "even the dirty sock basket smells of legend". It was hard not to think of that night; Mesut Ozil even went some way to emulating Redondo's back-heel. It was here in 2000 that Madrid felt they won their eighth European Cup. It was only the quarter-final – Bayern Munich awaited in the semi-final – and Madrid had been awful in the league, eventually finishing fifth. Before the game, Marca's cover spoke of the fear United inspired. But they found a way through. After it, Marca called the players "Eleven Di Stéfanos".
This time the performance was different and Mourinho may have been right when he said that United were the better side, but something is stirring. Hurdles overcome, few will want to face Madrid. They are now bookmakers' favourites. The threat always came laced with a promise: a double is perfectly possible now. Eight days have changed everything. From whore to nun in five minutes.