Mourinhos mad magic loses its lustre

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With reports of team discord and Barcelona back to their rampant best, Real Madrids coach is facing one of the stiffest challenges of his career.

Jos Mourinho has always insisted that his antics, provocations and pre-match hyperbole are an unselfish gambit, aimed at drawing attention away from his players. Lets take him at his word, and examine not the state of Real Madrid, but the state of their coach.

Mourinhos appearance has always seemed to speak volumes about his state of mind. When he started at Chelsea, he dressed like George Clooney, kept physically trim and his haircuts were frequently more fashionable than those of his players. When his relationship with the London clubs owner, Roman Abramovich, started to deteriorate and the teams performances declined, not only did Mourinho start to look tetchy and disgruntled, his physical appearance also suffered.

So when his Real Madrid side were heading for a 1-0 loss at Levante last weekend, it was his appearance as much as the scoreline that made one wonder if everything is as it should be in Mourinhos head. His hair looked particularly grey in the Levante floodlights, bags were visible under his eyes and his Real-issue tracksuit betrayed a slightly sagging physique.

It was a surprising sight so early in the season, Mourinhos second in Madrid and the one on which so much expectation has been heaped.

But the state of the Portugueses pectorals and complexion arent going to worry Real Madrid fans. And nor should a 1-0 away loss early in the season - even to Levante. As they calibrate their mouth-wateringly talented squads for the league campaign, both Barcelona and Madrid can expect the odd stumble Bara dropped a point against Real Sociedad the previous week before they resume their vice-like grip on the division.

But recent reports of dressing room unrest in the Bernabu are more worrying for the man from Setbal. If anything has characterised his teams over the years, it is unity and a passion for their manager.

Mourinho [] identifies with his team more than any other manager. Thats the opinion of Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, The Human Zoo and long-time football fan, quoted in Patrick Barclays biography of the coach. He is passionately involved with them. In his imagination, he is out there with them. He really is the twelfth man. As for keeping a distance, he doesnt feel a need to do it.”Morris adds: He is more like an elder brother. Or the leader of the gang.

That gang seems to be less than united lately.

The increasing number of Portuguese and Portuguese speaking players in the dressing room with the agent they share with Mourinho, Jorge Mendes, a background presence dilutes the homegrown, old-school Madrid influence that goalkeeper Iker Casillas once wielded behind the scenes, along with the likes of former Madrid striker Ral Gonzlez.

And some of those who are in neither the Portuguese nor the Spanish camp, such as midfielder Sami Khedira, are not happy, according to El Pas newspaper.

Also, reports that Mourinho has fallen out with Casillas have been rife, following the goalkeepers absence from the team list for a recent friendly, and the coachs consideration of Xabi Alonso to replace him as team captain. This apparent rift was caused by Casillass decision to telephone Barcelona players and clear the air after a particularly bad-spirited Real-Bara clsico opened the season.

Mourinhos most obvious challenge is to overthrow the all-conquering Barcelona of Pep Guardiola. His provocative and often disgraceful behaviour before, during and after recent clsico games highlights the pressure on him to do just that.

is trying to destroy Spanish football, complained Grard Piqu after the most recent Real-Bara controversy.

No, he isnt, hes just trying to destroy Barcelona who bounced back from their Real Sociedad stumble with an 8-0 hammering of Osasuna. But Mourinhos problem is that in picking a fight with the Catalan club, he is also picking a fight with Spains seleccin. Ten years ago, when support for La Roja was thin at best and the players themselves felt much more loyalty to their clubs than their country, his divide-and-conquer scheming would have worked more easily. But Spain, who rely so heavily on Barcelona players, are world and European champions and their current unity has been hard-earned.

Football dressing rooms are mysterious, unfathomable places and if anyone knows how to bring them together, its Mourinho. But aside from the on-field threat from Barcelona, if all the talk of an upset goalkeeper, Portuguese cliques and La Rojas determination to weather the Real-Bara storm is true, he is facing the biggest challenge of his career.

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