By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
They had been fighting for weeks. Off the pitch, Jose Mourinho had fought with Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Iker Casillas and others, while reports claimed the coach had also fought with a fan and that squad members were fighting in factions, between themselves. But on Sunday, all of the Real Madrid players finally fought for a common cause - and the result was spectacular.
Madrid had looked ordinary and benefited from a couple of questionable calls from the officials as they edged past Valencia in the side's Copa del Rey quarter-final first leg 2-0 win on Tuesday night. That was at home, with the trip to Mestalla in La Liga on Sunday looking far more tricky. It proved to be anything but.
Valencia were pushed back from the outset by a magnificent Madrid, who started the match in a higher gear than they had managed to find at any time on Tuesday. Gonzalo Higuain missed a glorious early chance before burying a second opportunity and the visitors were well on top, with Sami Khedira guilty of two misses as the half wore on.
But it was an 11-minute period before the break where the damage was done. Di Maria, desperately disappointing for much of the current campaign, was superbly set up by Ronaldo for a simple second. The Portuguese then added two of his own within five minutes, before a second strike from the Argentine on the stroke of half-time made it 5-0 to Madrid at the interval. Cristiano and Angel had been breathtaking and finished the first 45 minutes - the team's finest half of the entire season - with two goals and an assist apiece. Valencia, so competitive on Tuesday, seemed shell-shocked.
The home side had been awful - especially in defence - in front of their own fans, many of whom decided to depart at half-time, conscious that things were unlikely to get any better. The second half at least provided pride and even some good chances for Valencia, although no further goals were added at either end and the hosts finished the night with a five-goal defeat at Mestalla for the first time in their illustrious history.
Since taking over as coach in 2010, Mourinho has won each of his three league matches at Mestalla, including a spectacular 6-3 success in his first season. But this was even more impressive, particularly after some testing times of late at the Santiago Bernabeu.
|DI MARIA & RONALDO - BACK TO THEIR BEST|
| PLAYER RATING | ANGEL DI MARIA
|The Argentine looked up for the match from early on and made his return to the line-up count. After setting up Higuain for the opener, he added two goals of his own.|
| PLAYER RATING | CRISTIANO RONALDO
|Started fairly slowly but soon showed his quality to devastating effect. Did brilliantly to set up Di Maria for Madrid's second before grabbing himself a pair of excellent strikes.|
Mourinho, meanwhile, has also seen his defence keep four clean sheets in a row despite the absence of both Pepe and Sergio Ramos and the inclusion of Albiol. And he has witnessed a positive reaction from Iker Casillas, too, after the goalkeeper was dropped for two games either side of Christmas. On Sunday, the focus was back throughout the side and the coach must take credit for that. Against Valencia, all of the energies were channelled in the same direction and Madrid showed that if they can do that, they are an extremely dangerous team indeed.
This was much more like the Madrid of 2011-12, and although the champions cut Barca's advantage over them to a still-distant 15 points, the manner of the victory at Valencia will give the club confidence as greater challenges await, starting on Wednesday at Mestalla again in the Copa del Rey.
It has taken until late January but Mourinho's team have finally hit the heights and this performance proves the considerable threat they will pose to rival clubs in both the cup and the Champions League. Real Madrid are back in business and should they build on this form in the coming weeks, they may be peaking at the very best time of all. Somehow, through a mixture of motivation and psychology, Mourinho has his players back on board and fighting only for the greater good. Long may it continue.