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The Portuguese has seen his side's lead stripped from 10 points to one ahead of Wednesday's Madrid derby, and capitulation would represent a sad stain on a successful career

COMMENT
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Editor

Some football matches can decide an entire season. Others are much bigger than that. Real Madrid's short trip downtown to face city rivals Atletico on Wednesday is one such fixture. Just ask Jose Mourinho.

Journalists in the Spanish capital were denied the opportunity to do just that on Tuesday as assistant coach Aitor Karanka was sent out to face the press in place of the Portuguese for the 43rd time since the former Chelsea and Inter boss moved to Madrid in 2010. And it was a shame, because everybody desperately wanted to hear what the 49-year-old had to say.

The reason they did was because Mourinho had seen his side's once substantial lead evaporate again on Sunday following a gripping but goalless game at home to Valencia. After that, Karanka took the microphone once more, just as he had done in the pre-match press conference. And speaking again on Tuesday, Karanka claimed nobody at Madrid doubted Mourinho, despite draws in three of the last five Liga matches which have seen the side's 10-point advantage at the top whither away to just four.

And now it's only one. Barcelona fielded four forwards and scored four times without reply at home to Getafe on Tuesday night to close the gap at the top to merely a single point ahead of Wednesday's Madrid derby. "We will have to see what happens," Pep Guardiola claimed afterwards. "But we did our job tonight."

Now Madrid must do theirs. And so too must Mourinho.

HOW LA LIGA LOOKED AT THE TOP AFTER 22 GAMES

  P W D L Pts

Real Madrid
22 19 1 2 58

Barcelona
22 14 6 2
48

In his first campaign at the capital club, the Portuguese led his side to Copa del Rey cheer in Valencia, beating Barca in the process on an April night at Mestalla which appeared to signal the beginning of a new era at the Santiago Bernabeu - a springboard to further fortune and spectacular success. Mourinho rightly values cup competitions and stressed the importance of claiming the Copa to his playing squad in the build-up to that final. And he was vindicated.

This season, however, Mourinho's discourse has focused on winning La Liga. "The important thing for us is to win the league," he explained in February.

And he added in March: "The league is a super important competition and it is always won by the best team." Making Madrid that best team, however, looks less simple than it had done just a few weeks ago.

The match at Atletico on Wednesday represents a real test for the Portuguese and his players. With his side's lead cut to a solitary point by the Blaugrana on Tuesday and a Clasico clash at Camp Nou to come later this month, there is now no margin for error. So what looked like a straightforward stroll just several weeks ago - when Madrid fans fantasised over the prospect of a guard of honour at Camp Nou from Barca's players to greet the new champions - has turned into a final straight fraught with danger.

THE TABLE AHEAD OF MADRID'S TRIP TO ATLETICO

  P W D L Pts

Real Madrid
31 25 4 2 79

Barcelona
32 24 6 2
78

The tortuous trail to glory for Madrid and Mourinho starts at the Vicente Calderon. Atletico, despite defeat at Levante over the weekend, have added steel and style since the arrival of Diego Simeone as coach, and are likely to prove no pushovers on Wednesday. Later, after the Clasico, a tough trip to Athletic Bilbao awaits as well.

It's time for the final push. In the past, Mourinho sides have come good when it matters. The Portuguese almost saw his Inter team lose out to a resurgent Roma in the 2009-10 Serie A campaign, having let a substantial lead over the capital club slip towards the competition's climax. But a second-half strike from Diego Milito at Siena on the final day sealed a second Scudetto in two seasons and Jose later led the Nerazzurri to the Champions League as the Italians completed a tremendous treble with victory over Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu.

Since that success, however, the Portuguese mastermind has largely been forced to play second fiddle to Guardiola's brilliant Barcelona. Beat Bayern again - this time in the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition - and a showpiece showdown against the Catalans will surely await in May. But Barca also stand in his way in La Liga, hovering menacingly with the momentum on their side as the Primera Division draws closer to a thrilling finale. Win it, and Mourinho's legend status will remain intact as he claims a fourth league title in a fourth different country. Lose it, however, and some of his aura will be lost forever.

Ceding a 10-point lead would certainly represent the Portuguese's biggest failure in an ultra-successful coaching career. And holding on to it may just be his greatest challenge of all.

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