x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Jose Mourinho swims in dangerous waters at Real Madrid

Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, knows Barcelona will probably run away with La Liga ... so he must aim for Europe, which means squeezing past French club Lyons in the Champions League this week.

The giant screens in the corners of Espanyol's smart new stadium showed just one minute 21 seconds on the clock when Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid captain, rushed out of his box to foul the oncoming Jose Callejon.

Spain's captain is afforded a hero's status in his homeland. He may have lifted the World Cup six months ago, but on Sunday he was immediately shown a red card for behaviour that was anything but heroic. With Jerzy Dudek, the reserve goalkeeper, absent with a facial injury, third choice Antonio Adan made his Real debut in potentially difficult circumstances.

Espanyol are formidable at home, but the manner in which 10-man Real reacted will have impressed Jose Mourinho, the coach.

The Portuguese looked relaxed as he watched the whole game alone on the edge of his technical area. His three-quarter length coat kept out the Catalan winter chill, but he will feel the cold shoulder of 75,000 regulars at the Bernabeu if he does not guide his team through dangerous waters this month.

Mourinho had arrived in Barcelona on a private plane from St Etienne, where he watched Real's Champions League opponents Lyon triumph 4-1 on Saturday night.

Real travel to France next week for a first leg against a side who are unbeaten in the four games they have played against Real. Lyon also eliminated the Spaniards a year ago, the sixth season in succession that the Spanish giants have stumbled and fallen at the last 16.

With Barcelona in pole position to win the Primera Liga, Europe offers an alternative for Real to excel. But, while Mourinho has found some solutions to the puzzle that he inherited at the start of the season, he has yet to complete his Real jigsaw and appears undecided on his best XI.

Kaka has returned from a prolonged injury to find himself a peripheral figure. The most expensive player on the planet when he moved to the Bernabeu from Milan in 2009, his time in Spain has been injury-hit and underwhelming.

While Mourinho has not denigrated the Brazilian publicly as he has with the forlorn striker Karim Benzema, he has seldom offered him the compliments and assurances that he has given Cristiano Ronaldo, leaving Kaka wondering whether his long-term future is in Spain.

Sergio Ramos, the World Cup-winning right-back, started Sunday night's game on the bench, a warning perhaps that he is not an automatic starter, while the Spain international Raul Albiol is another who has every right to feel disenchanted with life in Madrid.

He has started just five league matches this season, with Mourinho preferring his compatriot Ricardo Carvalho or the Brazilian Pepe. Albiol, 25, has maintained a dignified silence until this weekend, when he said, with great understatement: "We have also lost games with Pepe, you know."

Real move forward with Ronaldo by far and away their most important player. Their leading goalscorer and playmaker, they are looking for him to decide key Champions League matches as he did for Manchester United.

With Gonzalo Higuain injured, Mourinho got the new striker he wanted in Emmanuel Adebayor on loan from Manchester City. He has settled in well and said he wants to stay in Spain. That is bad news for Benzema who is unlikely to feature against his former side Lyon.

Real do not look anything like as convincing as Barca, but, as they showed on Sunday, they can still grind out results when factors conspire against them.

That has been the hallmark of Mourinho's career as a coach. With that in mind he will lead his team forward with the intention of winning a 10th European Cup - and a second in succession for the Special One. You would not put it past him.