A home draw in a two-legged tie means Real Madrid surrendered the upper hand in the competition that will define Mourinho's legacy in Spain.
Before the match against Manchester United, which ended 1-1 at the Bernabeu, the American broadcast of the game on Fox Soccer aired an interview with the Real Madrid coach. He looked like most managers: pale face and all-salt-no-pepper hair roughly the same color. Jowls wagging away. Sunken eyes still furtive, wary. He's put on a few pounds. It wasn't always like this.
Spliced with the washed-out interview shots were pictures from key Champions League moments. Mourinho leaping down the touchline in his full-length pea coat after Porto ousted Man United in his first encounter with Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho grass-staining the knees of his gray suit pants. Mourinho smoldering from the sidelines, dashing and stylish, young and seminal.
On Wednesday, he wore a tacky adidas cowl to compliment his fixed scowl.
James Maw, an editor for FourFourTwo, posted a slightly manipulated image on Twitter in which Mourinho looked startlingly like Avram Grant, the dour-looking man who replaced him at Chelsea.
Mourinho was fired early in his fourth season with the Blues. He's never lasted four years at a club. The consensus is that his extreme motivational tactics can push players past traditional limits for about 48 months before exhaustion and suspicion seeps in. This season, his third year in the Spanish capital, hasn't dispelled the theory.
Real Madrid is third, 16 points behind Barcelona. Marca, the news outlet which often acts the mouthpiece of Los Blancos, reported at the turn of the year that Madrid's captains Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos had told the president that some players would jet if Mourinho continued through the summer. Casillas' girlfriend, Sara Carbonero, reported that the locker room increasingly bristles at the Portuguese coach.
The 50-year-old will leave at the end of the year. The question is: will he have won the Champions League before then?
La Decima, that elusive 10th European title, has haunted Real Madrid for a decade. During preseason training in Los Angeles, every player shoved in front of the press spoke about it at length, qualifying exactly how deeply the obsession ran. Last year, after wrestling the Spanish league title back from Barcelona, which had won the previous three, a return to the precipice of European soccer was the final peak to scale.
However, thanks to a home draw in the round of 16 first leg with United, ole Big Ears could slip away. A simple corner routine – Real Madrid has shown increasing vulnerability from set pieces – led to the opening goal from Danny Welbeck's hair midway through the first half. Phil Jones, deployed in the midfield, and Wayne Rooney, on the right wing, double- and triple-teamed Cristiano Ronaldo, helping asphyxiate his ability to run at the shaky Rafael.
Ronaldo, as clever as expected from the Second Best Player In The World, flipped over to the opposite flank to find breathing room. Half an hour into the game, it paid off, when he won the hang-time competition, white boy category, to head home the equalizer. Ferguson pointed out that Ronaldo's kneecap was level with Patrice Evra's head. The scale of the vertical will have made former March Madness announcer Gus Johnson quite comfortable in his new soccer digs.
That finished the scoring.
"They changed the way they play," Mourinho said. "They played very deep in the second half. I don't think Rio [Ferdinand] or [Jonny] Evans put a foot in our half."
That's true. But it's also true that at the final whistle, it was Manchester United players who swarmed the referee, angry that Felix Brych had denied them one last chance to score from a corner. Meanwhile, Mourinho trudged down the tunnel. For all David De Gea's impressive if unorthodox saves, Robin van Persie squandered the best chance of the match, scuffing his shot past Diego Lopez softly enough for Xabi Alonso to swipe it off the goal line.
Heading back to Old Trafford for the second leg, Manchester United holds the upper hand.
"No, no," Mourinho protested. "We can score more than one goal there."
Perhaps. Maybe Real Madrid will roar back, claim the Champions League trophy, and Mourinho will return to England next summer with his reputation enhanced.
But one thing is for certain. Just as Pep Guardiola, his hair grizzled and the discs in his spine eroding from Mourinho's attrition, left soccer altogether for a year sabbatical in New York, Mourinho won't escape with his looks intact.
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