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Thursday, May 3, 2012
Real Madrid, we salute you

By Graham Hunter
Special to ESPN.com

There is an elegant -- some would say imperious -- statue and fountain in the middle of Madrid called Los Cibeles, where on Thursday night Iker Casillas will lead his team, in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, in a presentation of his first La Liga title as captain of Real Madrid. The magnificent sculpture shows the Greek goddess Cybele on a chariot drawn by two lions (often said to be two Greek legends who were punished by Zeus and turned leonine) -- she represents power, growth, rebirth and the domination of raw spirits by the natural world.

Real Madrid
Real reveled in the occasion.

How appropriate.

The clinching reason that Los Blancos can celebrate at what has been their spiritual party venue since the mid-1980s coincidentally came when Real Madrid beat Los Leones (the Lions) of Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames on Wednesday night.

Nobody -- repeat, nobody -- had expected Real Madrid to do anything other than wrap up its richly deserved title at some stage over the next couple of matches.

But to go to what is legitimately "enemy" territory and drum out a muscular 3-0 win against a side that easily conquered Manchester United in Europe this season was deeply impressive. The victory allowed Real Madrid to proclaim itself champion of Spain for the 32nd time in immense style.

Casillas has never been to the Cibeles as league-winning captain because the last time Real won the league was four years ago, before Pep Guardiola's arrival at Barcelona and when Raul was Los Blancos' team leader.

The fact that the opening goal was scored at San Mames by Gonzalo Higuain, that Cristiano Ronaldo created the second and scored the third, and that it will be Casillas gently tying a Madrid scarf around the neck of the proud Cybele are all deeply appropriate in terms of what the statue symbolizes, what Jose Mourinho has achieved and how this title was won.

Mourinho, for this personification, is the mighty Cybele; Casillas, Ronaldo and Higuain are the lions under his whip hand; and the mighty chariot is what has been used to power away from the reigning champion FC Barcelona.

Take Higuain -- he was the No. 1 striker at Real Madrid. His remarkable goal on a night of torrential rain and thunderous football won Real Madrid its last title four years ago in Pamplona against a Rottweiler Osasuna side. He and Mourinho don't see eye to eye; the club is preparing to sell the player; his brother fiercely criticized Mourinho on Twitter; and Higuain has had to play second fiddle to the preferred striker, Karim Benzema, all season.

Yet not only was the Argentine there Wednesday night to smash home the opening goal that effectively destroyed Athletic's self-belief, he has contributed a remarkable 25 goals and a further eight assists. They are the numbers appropriate for a player-of-the-season tribute, but Higuain will simply have to wait in line. There are stronger candidates.

Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo
Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo -- who haven't always seen eye to eye -- embraced after Real clinched the La Liga title.

But what he represents is the first part of Mourinho's achievement.

Winning the league title, his seventh in four different countries, and what he calls "my most difficult" title are excellent triumphs.

But a forensic analysis of how he conquered Spain is both revealing and important.

Some of his players just don't appreciate Mourinho's manner, choices or attitude. Yet they have gone out there and put his orders into practice. They have unseated the team that over the past four years I have had no hesitation in calling the greatest in the world.

Set Higuain aside for the moment and the fact that Mourinho has drawn a brilliant season out of someone who has been a substitute as often as he has started and let's look at another of the lions drawing Mourinho's chariot.

Casillas and his coach are never truly going to get along, partially because the Spaniard is neither the physical specimen Mourinho likes for a goalkeeper nor does he salute the Mourinho flag. It's a simple and not too uncommon divergence of opinions. Casillas was born in Madrid, adores the club and would be behind the goal wearing a scarf and singing for the team were he not a professional footballer.

Mourinho, for all his talents, is a gun for hire. He is scrupulous about how he wants things done, and while that has won him the Copa del Rey and now the La Liga title in his two years at the Santiago Bernabeu, there are certain aspects of his comportment that Casillas will never subscribe to.

The two men have traded words this season -- once their disagreement ended up on the front page of a daily sports paper -- but here is Casillas, a stalwart all season, leading his team to the top of the Cibeles fountain, having done his job well.

He, like Higuain, knows that there is a possibility of Mourinho testing the market to discover whether there is a buyer for him, Higuain, or both, but like his Argentine colleague, the captain has seen the sense in most of Mourinho's tactics, work ethic and hunger.

I like the poetry of football. That Casillas returned to the ground on which he made his La Liga debut -- San Mames in Bilbao in September 1999 -- to win his first league title as captain seems a rich and wonderful story to me.

Another lion? Ronaldo.

It is always a test for a coach as to whether he can make a good player better. In the case of Ronaldo, I'd argue that he has improved under his countryman's tutelage.

The fact that Ronaldo has fought tooth and nail with Lionel Messi for the title of Pichichi (La Liga's top scorer) is a byproduct of how he has led his team. The Portuguese has played almost every minute of the three main competitions, scored 56 times and added 14 goal assists.

At times last season he was noticeably at odds with his coach's tactics but he has buckled down, worked hard and never (in my opinion) been such a team player as he is now.

Obviously personal development is in the mix here, but you'd be foolish not to credit Mourinho with (A) knowing how best to apply Ronaldo's talents to an identifiable playing scheme; and (B) knowing how to stoke Ronaldo's fiery competitive instinct. In my eyes, this has been the 27-year-old's most complete season.

The Real Madrid chariot hasn't quite been in danger of losing a wheel this season, but there have been moments when the lions have been afflicted with a thorn in their paw.

Some we have already dissected in this space, but nobody should underestimate the danger there was of a negative reaction when Bayern Munich defeated Real Madrid on penalties in the Champions League semifinal last month. To then go out and win the next two matches against nominally difficult opponents by a six-nil aggregate is a wonderful stamp of authority on a championship victory that was always going to be sealed -- but perhaps not with such a flourish.

OK, Los Blancos rode their luck a little bit Sunday against Sevilla, but they produced vital goals and showed cojones of steel.

Barcelona has been another thorn in the paw of Real. Guardiola's team defeated Real Madrid in two competitions this season and also won the first Liga Clasico at the Bernabeu. Yet the knockout punch came at Camp Nou a couple of weeks ago when Real Madrid won there for the first time since 2007.

Thorn removed.

Real Madrid Fans
Real fans showed their support after Los Blancos clinched the title.

That this title win is merited is not open to debate. Real Madrid has been the better side of the two main contenders across the length of the title race. It has also scored more goals in a league campaign than any Real Madrid side in history. In fact, Real has smashed the old John Toshack record of 107 goals in a season (1990).

But what I'll always value more highly is the way Los Blancos systematically took what Barcelona was supreme at and made it their own calling card.

For example, Guardiola's team was unable to win at Valencia, Real Sociedad or Athletic Bilbao and drew at home to Sevilla It also lost at Getafe and Osasuna.

Real Madrid beat Valencia 3-2 away, Real Sociedad 1-0 away, Athletic Bilbao 3-0 away and defeated Sevilla at home by the same scoreline. At Getafe, it won 1-0 and at Osasuna it was a 5-1 Blancos massacre.

Whenever and wherever Barca showed a weakness, Real Madrid was ruthless.

For me, the emblematic goal was the one that assured victory at Valencia. From a home corner, Real Madrid sequentially won six physical one-on-one challenges in the space of about 11 seconds to go from one end of the pitch to another so Ronaldo could round the goalkeeper and score. Mental power, physicality, athleticism, intention, hunger, ambition and thrills.

That'll do for me.

Simply because I believe that Mourinho sometimes lets himself down in word and deed will not stop me from saluting his triumph and his clever, relentless, free-scoring squad.

Spain has champions with merit again this year. We salute them.

And a postscript for Barcelona. Guardiola has thus far won 13 of the 18 trophies available to him as Barca first-team coach. What I give particular credit to is that each of the trophies that have been lost (Copa 2010, Copa 2011, Champions League 2010, Champions League 2012 and now this league title) has had to be prised from Barcelona's steely grip. I think if you inspected each trophy there would be claw marks on the silver.

Until this league season, each title loss has been by the narrowest of margins -- a single goal, an away goal, in the semifinal or in the final.

But when this season officially ends, the La Liga table will show a significant points gap, with clear blue sea between the winner and second place.

However, Barca's comprehensive victory over Malaga on Wednesday night (without David Villa, Eric Abidal, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Busquets, Xavi or Gerard Pique, all missing due to illness, injury or fatigue) simply showed again that Guardiola's reign has been marked not only by great football but great attitude.

And dignity in defeat. Speaking to Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves in the mixed zone of Camp Nou on Wednesday, they both told journalists the same thing: "Congratulations to Madrid, they deserve it."

Guardiola again called Real Madrid "deserving winners." There was an elegance in the public stance that masks the extreme pain of two massive, winnable trophies escaping the team's grasp.

But while the crowd thrilled to Messi's seventh hat trick of the season and were privileged to be present for his 66th, 67th and 68th goals of the season (now greater than any player's top-level total, having passed the legendary Gerd Muller for Bayern Munich), I'll keep tighter hold of the fans chanting Guardiola's name, the kid from the Catalan heartland countryside who has loved and served the club he helped make great choking up with emotion, and clapping the fans who were showing their appreciation.

Sport can be noble, even in defeat. That's what I witnessed Wednesday night. To the victor, the spoils. To the vanquished, respect.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.