Real Madrid might have won the Spanish Cup but if Mourinho is going to seize La Liga crown from Barcelona then he needs to rescue Fernando Torres from Chelsea.
There’s still extra-time to come in this goalless but absorbing Spanish Cup final. But there’s one thing we already know for sure. Whoever wins, and on the proviso that Mourinho stays on at the Bernabeu (which he ought to, if he’s half the man he says he is), he needs a centre-forward. What he doesn’t need is a Benzema, a Higuain or a Manolito Adebayor, or even a freestyling Pepe, who popped up in the Barcelona box several times tonight and headed against the post. No, what Mourinho needs is a target man for Di Maria’s swinging centres, a decoy for Cristiano’s searing runs and an outlet for Xabi Alonso’s raking passes.
The trio they’ve got would be fine if Madrid weren’t trying to break the hegemony of the best team in the world, superb in the second half tonight after being harried, manhandled and out-thought in the first. A Batistuta, a Van Basten or a Ronaldo in his prime would make Mourinho’s improving side truly formidable, but as they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, they’ll have to make do with the best option available right now. And that’s Fernando Torres, a jigsaw piece in the wrong box at Chelsea, a misfit who’d slot perfectly in Mourinho’s plans, especially now the Portuguese has got his defence spot on and new midfield options following the success of the Pepe experiment, his latest masterstroke.
Without a full pack of cards at his disposal, however, Mourinho has been forced to do things on the hoof for this month’s four-game clásico blockbuster, though few are better at doing that than he is. Mindful of the 5-0 cuffing at the Camp Nou last November, he gave Pepe a destructive midfield brief in Saturday’s league match. It worked a treat.
Tonight he drew Ozil into the side in place of Benzema, back to his old ineffectual ways at the weekend. The switch bolstered Madrid’s midfield reception party. Backed by an advanced rearguard superbly managed by the impeccable Carvalho, they suffocated Barcelona’s ball players, starving them of space and denying them their customary passing angles. Rarely has a football stat been as meaningless as the 76% possession Guardiola’s side enjoyed in the first 25 minutes. Rarely has Messi spent as much time on his backside as he did in the first 45 minutes here, legally dispossessed far more often than not.
Yet Madrid’s beautifully executed high-tempo first-half performance could have been their undoing in the second. Tiring visibly, they failed to plug the holes the league champions elect started to fashion thanks to their zippier passing and movement. Had it not been for Iker Casillas, who proved he’s still the world’s best goalkeeper with excellent saves from Messi, Pedro and Iniesta in a desperate ten-minute period, there might have been no need for the extra half-hour.
And that’s where Torres comes in. If Mourinho had had a hard-running centre-forward on top of his game and chasing down the channels in the first half, running on to through-balls and turning the Barcelona defence, his team might have got the goal their intensity deserved and his industrious midfielders could have taken the breathers they so badly needed. Cristiano did an admirable job filling in down the centre. But when you’ve got Pepe, Xabi Alonso and even Carvalho putting in appearances up front, it only makes the case for signing a proven goalscorer capable of doing a one-man job on big occasions stronger, admirable though Mourinho’s improvised take on total football was.
If there’s anyone who can whip the stumbling Spaniard back into his early Liverpool and EURO 2008 shape it’s the Madrid boss, who’s long been an admirer. And though the Atletico connection is a stumbling block, Torres’ advisors should remind him of two things. Firstly, sentimentality is for fans, especially when your career’s vanishing down the plughole at the alarmingly early age of 27. Secondly, and as Mo Johnston showed in 1989, any U-turn is possible in football. Madrid could even use Benzema as a bargaining chip, though they should have no problem meeting a knock-down asking price.
It was Cristiano, superb in his own very different way to the equally brilliant Messi, who won the cup in extra-time, converting Di Maria’s teasing cross with a classic centre-forward’s header, which just illustrates my point.
The Madrid players gratefully huddled round Mourinho and tossed him into the Valencia sky. But that doesn’t change a thing. Play those opening 90 minutes another ten times and Barcelona would likely win seven. And as for topping them over the course of a league season with a chop-change attack, forget it. So there’s no getting round it: Jose needs Fernando and, after another barren night at the Bridge for Chelsea, Fernando most definitely needs Jose.
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