The last week has hardly been English football’s finest hour in European competition.
Last year’s Premier League top three and the country’s biggest spenders accumulated just a solitary point between them as their respective Champions League participation hangs in the balance.
So far the European campaigns of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City have been a humbling experience for sides who would have considered themselves contenders for the continent’s most prestigious crown.
Going into matchday six, the trio will more than likely all need a win to absolutely guarantee progress, but even still, victories may only secure them second place and therefore the ominous prospect of being paired with either Barcelona or Real Madrid in the last 16.
Given their failings so far, the prospect of being drawn against one of the La Liga giants is almost incentive enough to sneak off into the Europa League for a spell. Last season United were humiliated by the Catalan Kings when Pep Guardiola’s side put on a regal show at the home of football which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men simply couldn’t cope with.
Following United’s Wembley walloping Ferguson immediately bestowed this current Barca crop as the best club side he’d ever had to face, and since then they’ve got on to add Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez to their formidable mix.
Barcelona’s strength in depth and supreme talent at their disposal, combined with a interbred understanding of their own footballing philosophy makes them virtually unplayable when they click, and unsurprisingly the bookies offered stingy odds at the start of the season on the La Liga champions becoming the first side since the start of the new money European Cup to defend their title.
But the signing of another two superstars appears to have disrupted Barca’s equilibrium. Their form at the Camp Nou has been predictably dismissive but on their travels it’s been a different story. A 1-0 defeat to lowly Getafe on Saturday night means they’ve now shed nine points from a possible 18 away from home, whilst Real’s run shows no signs of rescinding. They thumped near neighbours Atletico 4-1 at home to move six points clear of Barca with a meeting between the two at the Bernabeu to come in a fortnights time. Madrid are looking the Real deal.
Jose Mourinho had to acknowledge his side came second best literally and metaphorically to their arch rivals following the Special One’s debut season in the capital. Real were hammered 5-0 at the Camp Nou and although some solace was sought from lifting the Copa del Rey, Mourinho ultimately had to enviously watch on as Guardiola and his side went on to lift the league and the Champions League to envious acclaim.
Never one to take such disappointments lightly, Mourinho moved swiftly into the transfer market to further bolster an already star-studded Galactico’s player pool by adding Fabio Coentrao, Raphael Varane, Hamit Altintop and last year’s Bundesliga player of the year, Nuri Sahin.
The fact that Sahin has so far featured in just one league game for los Blancos indicates just how many aces Mourinho has in his pack, and as such, he is constantly faced with selection dilemmas about whether to play Albiol or Carvalho, Marcelo or Coentrao, Diarra or Khedeira, Benzema or Higuain. Even Barcelona and Manchester City do not have such strong reserves of world class performers.
After a couple of sticky results in the middle of September, Real have simply been unstoppable moving towards the end of the calendar year. They’ve won thirteen on the bounce scoring 51 times. Of those games, they’ve scored at least three on eleven occasions. The statistics are fearsome, but even more so is that under the tutelage of the world’s best coach, they will only continue to evolve and become more effective.
Beyond all of the numbers and ominous scoreline’s they’ve been posting, the reality is that gradually, piece by piece, game by game, Mourinho is sculpting Madrid into a complete production, instilling his philosophies and virtues onto a group with absolutely no shortage of talent, but combined with a mean age and desire to grow together to dominate football for years to come.
The Real Madrid which Mourinho inherited were still largely cast in the individual Galactico’s mould which frequently promised so much, but delivered relatively little, yet in his own inimitable way, Mourinho has taken the egos and instilled a communal harmony, collectiveness and hunger to excel themselves and win the lot.
As demonstrated, when going forward Real can be just as destructive as Barcelona, perhaps slightly less aesthetically pleasing, but doing it with more conviction, and although Barca are still the purists vision of football, Real are equipped with a more solid backbone and more strings to their bow of how to win football matches.
Barca effectively play in a similar vein wherever and whenever they play. Their tika-taka approach knows no restraint, but as cynical as it may sound about one of the sides lauded as the greatest ever, they lack a plan B, and simply rely on their own brand of football not being curtailed. As difficult as it is to play against, it is increasingly being stopped.
As Mourinho has shown across his career, there is more than one way to skin a cat and whether it’s a back to the wall smash and grab or a steamrollering of weaker opposition, he is not scared to ditch whatever morals he has left to secure the points.
The prospect of the strongest pool of players in the world being schooled but not taught by the game’s shrewdest tactician is a worrying combination for anybody attempting to knock them from their stride this season. Mourinho has proven time and time again he has the strength of personality and character to command the ultimate respect of any footballer regardless of their standing and reputation and get them to do things his way, and given the quality of player who seem to be adhering his advice and buying into his ways, Real will be the one team nobody will want to face this season.
Follow John Baines on twitter @bainesyDiego10
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