Commentary

Well done, Mourinho

Real Madrid and its canny manager finally broke Barcelona at the Camp Nou

Updated: April 22, 2012, 12:53 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

Lionel MessiLluis Gene/AFP/Getty ImagesLionel Messi couldn't escape the swarming Real Madrid midfield, as Jose Mourinho's game plan was played to perfection.

BARCELONA -- I recall the first article about Jose Mourinho I wrote for ESPN. "I'm no Harry Potter" was his key quote but, almost sotto voce, he promised that his teams were always better in his second season of coaching them.

And at the Camp Nou on Saturday night, he proved that to be unequivocally true. That Real Madrid registered only its second win in four years against Barcelona was significant enough, but the points gap now effectively means that Barcelona cannot defend its La Liga crown and Mourinho will complete a remarkable set of four league titles won in four different countries -- Portugal, England, Italy and Spain.

The last time he had a winning result here (in 2010, with Inter Milan losing on the night but advancing on aggregate goals to the Champions League final, in which it defeated Bayern Munich), the Special One danced on the turf and happily gestured to the Italian fans high in the Camp Nou.

It almost caused a riot, and Victor Valdes was tempted to manhandle the Portuguese back to the dressing room.

On Saturday, after a good, well-planned and merited win, Mourinho simply turned on his heel, headed down the tunnel and began to focus on beating Bayern on Wednesday.

His players jigged and danced, rightfully, having done enough to be sure that they will be champions this year. It was nourishing to see Andres Iniesta and Xavi head to embrace Madrid keeper Iker Casillas -- a bitter pill to swallow when a friend has turned your world upside down, but necessary for two guys who are proper sportsmen.

The win? Well, as good as it was, there will be some who carp.

Was there an offside for the first goal? Possibly.

Was the referee, Undiano Mallenco (the referee for Mourinho's only other win as Madrid coach over Pep Guardiola's Barcelona), a factor? His style of refereeing favors Madrid, but his decisions were largely exemplary.

Did Guardiola make mistakes in choosing his personnel and selecting his tactics? The result aside, it should be said that the performance made it look like that answer was "yes," too.

However, a couple of things should not be obscured under any circumstances. First, had the winning goal been scored by Barcelona, its devotees all over the world would have been ecstatic about its creation and execution. Having just seen Barcelona equalize through Alexis Sanchez -- in what was a scrappy defensive moment for Mourinho's side -- Madrid could have buckled in morale, concentration or confidence.

No chance. Mesut Ozil took the ball on the right wing and sent a heat-seeking left-footed pass into space for Cristiano Ronaldo. The quality of the pass left Javier Mascherano absolutely beaten, and CR7 showed both brilliant control and ruthless efficacy in beating Valdes. Top-class goal and a joy to watch.

Secondly, this was yet another type of display from Mourinho's side in a Clasico. It bore little resemblance to almost any of the previous 10. As few fouls as possible, as much athletic pressing as possible, clinical with every pass, clinical with every tackle -- smart.

If your team wasn't Barca, if you were simply somebody in love with football and its red-letter occasions, Saturday's El Clasico was a display that smacked of maturity and intelligence, something Madrid has only achieved in glimpses against Barcelona while under Mourinho's control. Without Marcelo in the team it was far, far less error-prone, and while it had a lot less of the ball than Barcelona -- just 28 percent -- Madrid passed it quickly and crisply when it was in possession.

As for confidence? That is one fickle, funny thing in sport.

The pendulum will swing, always, and things will change. But I like to imagine that when Isaac Newton wrote his third law about every action having an equal and opposite reaction, he was planning ahead (OK, but just under three centuries) for the series of Clasicos between Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.

Barcelona has gone to the Bernabeu and imposed such pain, such humiliation, that it's a chore for Madrid to host them there at the moment. At the Camp Nou, however, Madrid's players have felt that relaxed, "nothing to lose" sensation for some games now.

[+] EnlargeSami Khedira, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol
Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty ImagesNormally robust at the back, Carles Puyol's fatal hesitation to clear a Real Madrid corner allowed Sami Khedira to open the scoring.

The last three Camp Nou Clasicos have resulted in a draw, a narrow win and a draw in Barcelona's favor. But honestly, Madrid did so well in each that it could have won. When you are in the midst of the greatest sequential humiliation Real Madrid has suffered at Barcelona's hands in the history of this duel, such details matter. Very much.

The equal and opposite reaction was that the series of comprehensive defeats imposed by the Catalans in Madrid has made it much easier for Madrid to play and excel in Barcelona. Go figure. Thus it was that Mourinho achieved the effect he has been seeking -- "us against the world" -- since arriving at Madrid.

Real didn't need the trash-talking, nor the fouls, nor the playacting; it simply stuck to what was a very clear, perfectly fair and well-implemented game plan.

In fact, the last time Barcelona spent so much time looking impotent was that aforementioned occasion two years ago when bowing out of the Champions League to Inter Milan. Saturday night, as compared to 2010, Barcelona was also a goal down -- unnecessarily.

Those who follow what I write will know that I admire Valdes both as a competitor and an individual. However, by his own high standards, he'll be able to look at the last two goals he's conceded -- at Chelsea and on Saturday to Sami Khedira -- and accept that he was at fault.

Running toward the cross and then back again, allowing himself to be wrong-footed and thus unbalanced when Khedira challenged for the loose ball -- that was sloppy work.

So for a long, long time, what happened was that Barcelona huffed and puffed. It's top-class huffing and puffing, and not ugly to watch -- but it wasn't going to blow anybody's house down.

Sergio Ramos was such a clever, athletic presence in the match. When Lionel Messi dropped deep and tried to take advantage of free space in the midfield, Ramos adopted the role in which Pepe failed last season. A seeker and destroyer, but not a rule breaker -- that was Ramos.

And it was hugely effective. Since the gutsy away win at Levante, played on a hard, dry pitch with long grass, Xavi's Achilles tendon injury has been giving him grief. So elegant is his playing style that many thought he had a good game in London last week. But by his standards, he did not.

On Saturday night, again, his brain was active and his contribution, by any normal player's standards, was fine. But the spark of creative genius, the absolute reliability that he will absorb pressure and break down defensive lines -- these did not shine as brilliantly as the normal gems he produces.

So while it was exciting that Barcelona equalized, a goal the Keystone Kops would have been proud of, it wasn't representative of the game's ebb and flow.

Guardiola's game plan, starting XI and his ability to alter the direction of the match were all second-best to Mourinho's until he withdrew Xavi (which felt like an admission that the second leg against Chelsea on Tuesday was already more important) and pushed on Alexis.

Messi broke a defensive line, tackles and shoves resulted, Adriano shot and little Alexis, at the second attempt, bundled the football home. For pure entertainment, it was good. The noise was tumultuous, while the league suddenly looked like it had some weeks left to run and the neutral could be happy.

But the connoisseur -- at least if he or she sees it like I do -- could only be respectful and impressed that justice was done almost immediately. Madrid might have had the ball for less time and done fewer creative things with it overall, but it was clearer than Barcelona about its aims, far more consistent, error-free and full of quality when the crucial moments arrived.

For example, getting back to the pass Ozil released from the right touchline with his left foot for the much-maligned (at least around the Camp Nou) Ronaldo -- well, it was poetry. Had that been Iniesta or Xavi or Dani Alves finding Messi on the run, it would, justifiably, have been venerated, and I see absolutely no reason the same standards shouldn't apply to the wonderful goal that resulted.

The final word is that this was a goal of wonderful power and precision -- a microcosm of Madrid's entire season. Hats off to them for that.

Back in that first Mourinho column for ESPN, I noted, too, that Real Madrid lacked a clear, cogent footballing philosophy. But since this preseason, Mourinho has installed one. It is efficient, sometimes brutally so. It can be fantastic to watch, and it has won them the title. Perhaps there is another trophy to come, too. We shall see.

But let nobody miss the fact that this has been a La Liga season in which Madrid has found an identity, clipped Barcelona's wings and now stands on the verge of being confirmed as a worthy Spanish champion.

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.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.