By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The players gathered around a television at the club's training ground at Valdebebas on Tuesday to watch Jose Mourinho's pre-match press conference ahead of Wednesday's La Liga clash with Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu. And not for the first time, they did not like what they saw.
Nor did Florentino Perez. Earlier in the day, the Madrid president had called for unity in trying times as club controversies continue to overshadow matters on the football field itself and Mourinho's polemical possession approaches its sticky end. In a bid to restore calm and avoid further unwanted distractions as Real look to clinch second place and build again ahead of the final of the Copa del Rey later this month, Perez asked his coach to send out assistant Aitor Karanka to Tuesday's media briefing. He was ignored.
Instead, Mourinho used the gathering to criticise club captain Iker Casillas and to respond publicly to Pepe after the defender had stuck up for the goalkeeper following Madrid's 4-3 win at home to Valladolid on Saturday.
For Mourinho, Pepe's switch of sides had perhaps been the ultimate betrayal. The coach has stood by his defender through a series of on-pitch controversies, including his dismissal in the 2010-11 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, a stamp on Lionel Messi's hand the following season and many more incidents beside. The Portugal defender, more than any other player, seemed to represent his boss's 'us-against-the-world' siege mentality as battles began on the pitch. He was in his coach's camp, not Iker's, and had even been tipped to become one of the 50-year-old's first signings at Chelsea this summer. Not now.
Pepe told Canal Plus that Casillas deserved more respect, after the Portuguese had taken another swipe at the goalkeeper on Friday by saying he should have signed Diego Lopez back in 2011. "The boss's quotes were not the most suitable," the defender said. "Iker is an institution for both Real Madrid and Spain."
"That's the whole story. It isn't easy for a man aged 31 with a lot of experience behind him to be blown out of the water by a kid of 19. It's very simple. The problem is very simple. Pepe's life has changed."
So has Mourinho's. Respected and admired at first for an authoritarian approach rarely seen by bosses at Madrid, the Portuguese is losing friends fast at the Bernabeu and, according to Marca, he has the unconditional support of just three first-team footballers: Diego Lopez, Luka Modric and Michael Essien.
Those three, of course, remain grateful for their Madrid moves: Diego Lopez was, until recently, a Sevilla substitute, Modric made the significant step up from Tottenham after Mourinho convinced Real to splash big cash in the summer and Essien is a player who refers to the Portuguese as 'daddy'.
Meanwhile, even previous staunch supporters such as Alvaro Arbeloa and Jose Callejon have lost patience with their coach this term, with Mourinho's treatment of Casillas the final straw for much of the first-team squad.
On Tuesday, Mourinho explained why he preferred Diego Lopez to Iker in what seemed an honest appraisal of the two gifted goalkeepers. "I like Diego more because he plays more with his feet, he comes off his line and dominates in the area. Iker is a fantastic goalkeeper between the posts, but I like a different kind of goalkeeper."
At face value, it sounds like a reasonable and understandable explanation. After all, Diego Lopez has been brilliant since his January move and arguably cannot be dislodged on current form. However, there is much more to it than that.
In 2011, Mourinho claimed Casillas was the world's best goalkeeper and also backed the Spain skipper to claim the Ballon d'Or. Even then, there had been problems between the pair, yet the relationship remained rosy - at least for the most part.
The Portuguese, however, has long believed the keeper to be in a privileged position at Madrid and has seriously questioned the 31-year-old's commitment in training and during matches. He is also well aware, and uncomfortable, that the player's partner - sports journalist Sara Carbonero - is privy to inside information on the goings-on behind the big white walls at the Bernabeu. In January, Carbonero revealed what many had suspected when she told Mexican station Televisa of divisions behind the scenes between Mourinho and the players. And it takes little imagination to identify her source.
Mourinho may genuinely prefer Lopez to Casillas, but the club captain was originally dropped in December for Antonio Adan, who has long since disappeared from the first-team radar. Back then, Mourinho spoke of a 'comfort zone', a player without competition for his place, yet Casillas remains convinced he was left out for personal reasons.
He and Sergio Ramos are the two players who have stood up to their coach more than the rest and in January, Marca claimed that the pair had told Florentino: "Presi, in June, either Mourinho leaves, or we will..."
Ramos has had his own problems with Mourinho and after public criticism from the Portuguese following a defeat at Sevilla, he questioned his coach's decision to wash the team's dirty linen in public - and was duly dropped for the Champions League clash at home to Manchester City days later. The pair's relationship has remained rocky ever since.
But perhaps the final straw for Madrid fans came when Mourinho questioned Cristiano Ronaldo on Friday. "We started the league [in a] sad [state]," he said, in a clear reference to his player's problems at the beginning of the campaign. "And because we were sad, we lost points."
However, Madrid fans will recall that the day Ronaldo revealed his 'sadness', he also scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Granada. Back in September, the forward may have been slightly below his brilliant best, but the whole team was in a sorry state and blaming Cristiano appears a cowardly act from Mourinho, especially just three days after the former Manchester United forward had placed his body on the line by playing when unfit in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund.
Already angered by the treatment of Casillas, Madrid fans simply could not tolerate criticism of the player who has carried them to their greatest heights over these last three campaigns and duly jeered Mourinho on Saturday when his name was announced at the Bernabeu. Now, with almost all of his players against him and many more fans turning their backs as well, the Portuguese's final days in Spain are approaching. And even if they do claim the Copa in nine days' time, it will be far from a happy ending for Mourinho in Madrid.
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