The King's Cup is proving to be more than a mere sideshow to La Liga this season, a fate that often befalls a competition that has traditionally been taken less than seriously by Spain's larger clubs. For many years, it was Real Madrid's club policy to get knocked out as quickly as possible, and even lesser Liga luminaries would habitually field weakened teams. However, with the possibility of getting into the Champions League made all but impossible by the hegemony of the top three, the Europa League is the summit of most clubs' ambition, and merely reaching the final of the cup -- assuming that Real, Barcelona or Valencia are on the other side of the halfway line, or Levante holds firm in fourth -- provides an easier route than a grueling league season. At least that was the crafty plan of Espanyol president Ramon Condal until his team faced Mirandes yesterday.
Miranda de Ebro, Jan. 24, 2011: The small city of 40,000 was sent into raptures when third-division side Mirandes defeated Espanyol 2-1 to reach the semifinals for the first time in its history, a feat matched only once this generation among third-division teams, by Unio Esportiva Figueres in 2002. The stadium erupted at the final whistle, the capacity crowd at the Estadio Anduva pouring onto the field in delight and carrying the hometown players on their shoulders in the manner of the great matadors of yesteryear. All the action was captured for television by a single camera, which appeared to have been mounted on the seat of some unfortunate fan.
It had seemed impossible that Mirandes would overcome Espanyol. The tiny club -- with a budget of 1 million euros and only one player, Cesar Caneda, who had ever set foot in the Primera Division -- had dispatched top-flight opposition in the previous two rounds, ambushing Villarreal and outplaying Racing Santander, but Mauricio Pochettino's Espanyol is a harder nut to crack, as it proved when holding Barcelona to a draw earlier in the month.
Mirandes had taken a two-goal lead in Cornella and then thrown it away with defensive lapses in the final five minutes to allow Espanyol to bang in three. When Rui Fonte extended Espanyol's aggregate lead to 4-2 on the stroke of halftime, it seemed that finally Mirandes' miraculous cup run must come to an end. Mirandes' coach, Carlos Pouso, switched to a more attacking formation for the second period and his players emerged from the locker room with renewed determination. Pablo Infante, the competition's top scorer, gave the home side hope on 57 minutes before Caneda, after sustained pressure from Mirandes, guided an Infante free kick past the near post of Francisco Casilla.
"If the hairs on your neck aren't standing up, you obviously don't like football," cried the television commentator as pandemonium ensued. "It's something to tell the grandkids," said Pouso, who had words of comfort for Jose Mourinho. "He is sad at the moment and he is working miracles. But that is what life is like sometimes, that the poor are sometimes happier than the rich. Without the support of the players, the board and the fans I would be nothing. I am happy because I am in the right place at the right time. We have a date with history."
Madrid, Jan. 23, 2011: "I do not provoke cliques. I know nothing about the leaks. I feel very supported by the board, we're currently in the midst of a very good spell." said Mourinho in his news conference ahead of the second-leg clash against Barcelona, which was overshadowed by reports of a dressing-room rift between the Portuguese players and those who represent La Roja. Spanish newspaper reports stated that Mourinho had had a training-ground bust-up with firebrand defender Sergio Ramos, whom the Real coach blamed for allowing Carles Puyol to equalize during the first leg at the Bernabeu. Ramos said that he had switched to mark Gerard Pique at the time, and apparently delivered a scathing retort to his boss: "Sometimes during games you have to make positional changes; you were never a player so you don't know."
Pouso could not have been more accurate with his observations on the Real coach. Despite a five-point lead in La Liga over their archrival, and two goals without reply required to win the King's Cup tie against Barcelona tonight, Mourinho has the right to feel aggrieved that his players (apparently) and the Bernabeu support (evidently) seem to be turning against their man. Jeers rang out around the stadium when the Ultras Sur sang their "Jose Mourinho" song in Real's 4-1 win against Athletic, in which Mourinho fielded an attacking side and even threw in local favorite Esteban Granero to mollify the baying hordes. Mourinho's problem is that his support believes he should field attacking sides against Barcelona, rather than falling back on the negative -- if successful -- tactics he employed while at the helm of Inter. Italian clubs are predisposed to defensive cohesion. Real was not, and time was required to instill it. Now that it has been, the feeling around the Bernabeu is that he should use that foundation as a base for more elaborate play.
Tonight, at Camp Nou, Mourinho has already warned the world that public enemy Pepe will play if passed fit, suggesting the Madrid manager plans to employ a game plan similar to the one that eventually failed last week.
Perhaps he should take a leaf out of Pouso's book and have a go instead. It's the cup, after all, and as Mirandes has consistently proved, anything is possible. All Mourinho risks by not taking one is the continued erosion of what goodwill remains to him.