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'The Special One' looking all too ordinary

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Spanish soccer giants Barcelona and Real Madrid have played each other 213 times in the last 109 years, including five this season and four in the past 18 days.

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Together, they own nearly 100 domestic league and cup titles and more than two dozen European and world club championships. By any measure -- success, hatred, politics, money or snobbery, not to mention enduring culture clashes and the still-fresh wounds of civil war -- no rivalry in American sport even comes close.

Yet every Barca-Real tilt comes down to the same thing that Ohio State-Michigan does: It matters little who else you beat if you don't beat the other guys along the way first.

Which explains how Jose Mourinho, who proclaimed himself "The Special One," and is by consensus the best soccer coach in the world, could soon find himself suffering on the same seat that proved too hot for Earle Bruce, John Cooper and a whole host of lesser lights with little of his flash and even less of his cash.

Madrid paid a $10 million transfer fee to Italian club Inter Milan to free up the 48-year-old Portuguese and bring him to Spain, then shoveled another $48 million in Mourinho's direction to lock up him up for four years. His resume is that good. Mourinho stunned global soccer by winning his first European championship with Porto, a relatively poor club from his native land, then piled on another 13 major titles during stops at well-off Chelsea in England and Inter.

Yet the line in the resume that caught the eye of the directors at Real was his success against Barcelona.

There isn't enough time or space here to plumb the depths of the rivalry, or even say with certainty where it's headed after a 1-1 draw in Tuesday's Champions League semifinal advanced Barcelona to the finale against England's Manchester United and sent Real home to stew some more.

Suffice it to say that Real was the world's dominant club at the dawn of the modern era, setting the standard of play by assembling a team of international stars. Exactly how Mourinho planned to reclaim what Real considers its rightful place at the top was a matter of considerable debate from the moment he arrived.

In the Spanish League, winning is necessary, but winning ugly is often not enough. Mourinho realized he couldn't match Barcelona's fluid, possession-based attack, so he opted for throwing a wrench into it instead. The result, as Grant Wahl noted recently in Sports Illustrated, "polarized the world's soccer watchers into two camps: one that hailed Mourinho as a practical genius and another that derided him as a defensive-minded killjoy."

It might be coincidence -- or as Mourinho maintains tirelessly, a conspiracy -- that seven of his players on three different teams have been sent off for violent fouls in games against Barcelona. Until the latest draw, his teams had finished five straight matches against Barca with only 10 players on the field. The last of those -- a 2-0 loss against Barcelona last week at home marred by fights and injuries, both real and feigned -- ended with Mourinho sent off as well.

He wasn't on the Real sideline Tuesday, either, having been banned from both the bench and locker room, and said to be watching from the team hotel. No matter. His influence was clear as Real players and staff blamed their failure on Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere, just as Mourinho had hounded German referee Wolfgang Stark a week earlier.

"Mourinho is right -- after the (last) game he said it was impossible for us to go forward," assistant coach Aitor Karanka said. "He's feeling angry about what we've seen in the last few games with the referees."

Added star forward Cristiano Ronaldo, Real's big acquisition just two years ago, "If things don't improve we should just stay home and let Barcelona play by themselves. Next year they should just give the cup directly to Barcelona."

They might as well. So long as Mourinho packs his lineup with seven defenders, as he did in the first semifinal leg of the Champions League home-and-home series, his teams will need luck to keep pace with Barcelona. In those two games, Real managed exactly four shots on goal.

His lineup for the second leg featured more forwards -- Real had to overcome a two-goal deficit to advance -- but the same old tactics. Real was whistled for three times as many fouls as Barca, 31-10, including 11 against Lionel Messi, the best striker in the game. Five Real players were shown yellow cards.

Referees aren't the only ones turning thumbs down at Mourinho's product. Job security at the top levels of soccer is something few Americans beyond the late George Steinbrenner could appreciate and former great Alfredo Di Stefano, who is revered to this day, recently added his voice to the chorus criticizing Real's cynical approach to the game.

But the scoreboard after the latest head-to-head meetings spoke loudest of all.

"Football justice was served," Barca's Xavi Hernandez said. "The best team got through."

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