Conspiracy theories abound after it all kicked off on the day Real Madrid were saved by an unlikely youth team graduate
They say that around about the time the doctor was putting the fifth stitch in Cristiano Ronaldo's eye, all bloody and bruised, a sinister figure entered the room and shut the door behind him. It was time to impart some justice. He was, legend has it, wearing nothing but a towel and there was no mistaking him. Levante's captain Sergio Ballesteros is the biggest player in La Liga, a beast of a man eight foot tall and four wide with a neck like Mike Tyson. There were four people in the room: Ronaldo, the doctor, Ballesteros and the man Ballesteros had come for, the Real Madrid defender Pepe. So, he grabbed Pepe by the neck and punched him.
Or so say Real Madrid. Ballesteros, on the other hand, says that he simply came to see if Ronaldo was OK and that then "it got a bit messy because it seems I'm not allowed to be there". Other Levante players say that after Sunday night's game, they found Pepe dancing in the doorway of their dressing room, trying to wind them up. Much as he had tried to do to the fans a short while before. "When it comes to Pepe, it's not the first time," complained Juanlu. "When it comes to Ballesteros, it's not the first time," complained Sergio Ramos. "If he doesn't like this sport, he can take up boxing."
Someone somewhere was lying. But one thing's for sure: down the tunnel, it was kicking off. "There are people that don't know how to accept defeat," complained Ramos. "We went into the dressing room but there's always one. You get tired of it because it's not the first time, you get tired of it and you think the unsporting people should stay out of it." When Ramos's words were relayed to Juanlu, microphone under his nose, earphone in his ear, a look of incredulity and indignation spread across his face. "It makes me laugh that Madrid should talk about Ballesteros," he said. Then he really let rip. It was conspiracy time.
"It's obvious that they couldn't let the title end so soon. The referee gave everything their way. If you analyse the whole game you'll see it, every decision: grain by grain, you create a mountain. He was winking at them, smiling and patting them on the back." The referee, César Muñiz Fernández, wrote in his report that there had been a confrontation involving two men, but he didn't say anything about Pepe or Ballesteros: the two arguing were employees of the clubs, one from Madrid and one from Levante.
Picking fact from fiction is always difficult, but there was pushing and shoving and shouting, people wading in. That was when the police turned up, shutting Madrid in their dressing room until they had been able to move Ballesteros out of there. Every Madrid player, locked in.
Well, almost every Madrid player.
Standing alone outside was a 20-year-old kid by the name of Alvaro Morata. When the police arrived, Morata was talking to Onda Cero radio. There was something appropriate about his solitude; something right in him standing apart from all the noise and all the arguments, from all the nastiness and the accusations. About him standing there and just enjoying the moment, away from the fighting. "I haven't had the chance to speak to my family yet because there's no reception in the dressing room," he said. "But I'm very happy." He had, after all, just scored his first ever goal for Real Madrid. He had rescued his side.
There is a message scrawled on the wall in the tunnel at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium, home of Levante Unión Deportiva. It is painted in blue just outside the away dressing room and it says: "You come here to play and you might win but one thing's for sure, you're going to suffer." Their top scorer Obafemi Martins announced: "It will be a war." As for Ballesteros, splashed across the cover of Marca on Sunday morning, his words had something prize fight weigh-in about them: "Madrid know what awaits them." The Ciutat de Valencia is one of only two first division stadiums where Ronaldo has never scored. Madrid have never won there under José Mourinho.
On Sunday night Real Madrid won 2-1 but that doesn't even begin to tell the story. On a waterlogged pitch, players forced to turn to the beach football trick of flicking the ball up to be able to strike it cleanly, there was little precision but plenty of passion. It had a kind of comic value, all slipping and sliding and slapstick. Bad passing, worse dribbling and slide tackles that went on so long they still haven't finished. Ronaldo had his eye smashed open by David Navarro – another player with more than his share of previous – but scored the opener anyway, even though he could only see out of one eye.
By half-time, he couldn't see out of either so he came off at half-time, replaced by Raúl Albiol. Angel scored for Levante, making it 1-1. Casillas made two brilliant saves. Ramos's back-heel from two yards somehow flipped up and came off the bar. Pepe hit the bar too. And, just when it looked like there had been a let off, Xabi Alonso's penalty was saved by Munúa. Time ticked away. At 1-1, Madrid would have been 10 points behind Barcelona. They weren't going to turn it round. Gonzalo Higuaín was out injured, Karim Benzema was out injured, and now Ronaldo had gone too. Angel di María kept getting tackled by puddles. At the other end, meanwhile, Juanlu could have won it for Levante.
The league title was slipping away. And then Mourinho made a change. It was time for Morata. It was his third appearance in the league – he'd played briefly against Getafe and Mallorca – and the impact was immediate. A free-kick from Xabi Alonso, a header from Morata and Madrid were 2-1 up and back in the title race. It was the 84th minute. It was Morata's first touch. Sprinting past his team-mates screaming, he ran to the bench and leap into the arms of Adán, the substitute goalkeeper. When the whistle blew, Madrid had picked up what Mourinho would describe as "three vital points". Morata had rescued them.
It had to be him.
Over the last few weeks, one debate has dominated the agenda: the cantera. Exacerbated by the fact that Mourinho lost Marcelo, Fábio Coentrão and Alvaro Arbeloa but still didn't play youth teamer Nacho Fernández at left-back, choosing instead to go for Michael Essien, it has become an obsession and a battlefield. Mourinho, the argument goes, does not trust in Madrid's youth teamers; the media, the counter-argument goes, are obsessed with attacking Mourinho and the youth team is a convenient excuse – "a weapon to be used against the manager," as Arbeloa put it.
Mourinho even pulled out a list during one press conference – "facts", Benítez style. It was a list of over 40 Real Madrid youth teamers who have ended up having limited careers. The point being that it is not his fault that the last homegrown player to become a regular fixture in the side was Iker Casillas. This is a historic problem – if indeed it is even a problem – not a contemporary one.
Mourinho also criticised the fact that the style of play and even the formation differs from Madrid to their second team Castilla, making the step up harder, and complained that there are players in the B team who are too old to make the step up to the first team. There's no point in having "youth" teamers, he suggested, who are not exactly youths; they might get the occasional minute but they are not going to become regular first-teamers. He said the Castilla coach Alberto Toril "has to decide if it's more important to form players for the first team or finish fourth or fifth". The message could hardly have been more pointed, its handling blunt. Unpleasantly so.
One of the things that Mourinho overlooked was that theoretically the cantera is his responsibility too: he is manager not just coach. He later insisted that his position was "first-team" manager but it smelled of revisionism and the official structre of the club places him above the sporting director who has responsibility for the youth team. One of the things that the critics overlooked in the fallout is that Mourinho was right: Madrid's cantera has produced more first division players than any other club but not for Real Madrid and that goes back years.
Apart from the Quinta del Buitre side that won five consecutive league titles in the 1980s, Madrid have never really been a team based on the cantera. Only 72 canteranos have played more than 10 games in the first team in the club's entire history. The problem is that, these days, Barcelona are.
Either way, battle had been declared and fault lines had opened up in a relationship that is already fractious. That weekend, a handful of Castilla players ran to celebrate a goal with Toril. It did not appear a coincidence. Nor did it appear a coincidence when Madrid unveiled the new youth team residency at Valdebebas last week and Mourinho didn't show up. "I was preparing the game [against Dortmund]," he said by way of excuse.
This weekend, Madrid were without Benzema and Higuaín. Here was a chance for Morata but Mourinho chose Ronaldo as a No9 instead of Morata. They guessed he would and they weren't happy. But then with the league slipping away and Ronaldo, Higuaín and Benzema gone, Mourinho did put Morata on. Within seconds he had scored. Rather than ending the debate, it only intensified it. Mourinho, said the critics, had been rescued by Morata. He had been saved by the very cantera he "despises". Here was more evidence that he should have trusted in him sooner; why had he waited until three strikers were gone, one of whom wasn't even a striker? When he took off Ronaldo why was it Albiol who came on not Morata?
Mourinho was having none of it. "I was the one that brought him into the first team squad," Mourinho said. "Who called him up for pre-season with the first team, three times? Me. Who stopped him leaving? Me. Who gave him a first-team contract? Me. Who arranges all that? Me. You lot calculate on the basis of the games he doesn't play. I calculate on the basis of the games he does: Getafe, Mallorca, the cup, last season. You lot talk but we'll keep on our path. The merit is his. But I did that. You seem to forget that I didn't like Juan Mata go or Alvaro Negredo. I let Pedro León go. But, remember: Mata? Not me. Negredo. Not me."
"Excuse me," asked one journalist, "but isn't it a bit opportunistic for you to say that? Morata has hardly played at all."
"Yes," replied Mourinho, "he plays so little that he comes on and scores."
• "O Rei Messi" said the headlines and who could blame them? Messi scored twice in a 4-2 win against Mallorca, taking him past Pelé's 75 goals in a calendar year from 1959.
• Just when you were thinking: 'Betis, what a nice team they are'...
• Real Sociedad don't make sense, a team capable of being simultaneously good and bad. Their good moments rarely seem to be more than moments and although they have some lovely players to watch it often feels like there's something missing. As if there's a good team waiting to come out somewhere. Montanier appears unsure of his best line up but when they get it right - and when Ruben Pardo and Illaramendi both play - they can be genuinely good. This weekend they did and they were. Malaga were the victims.
• Crisis at the Calderón. They lost for the second time in midweek (this time in the Europa League). They beat Getafe yesterday but Falcao didn't score again.
• More people watched Real Oviedo this weekend than watched Barcelona at Son Moix. www.yosoyelrealoviedo.com
Results: Betis 1-2 Granada, Rayo 3-2 Celta, Espanyol 0-3 Osasuna, Zaragoza 5-3 Deportivo, Málaga 1-2 Real Sociedad, Valladolid 1-1 Valencia, Athletic 2-1 Sevilla, Mallorca 2-4 Barcelona, Atlético 2-0 Getafe, Levante 1-2 Real Madrid