So, it's official: Pellegrini out, Mourinho in. Bet you never saw that one coming, eh?
Real Madrid's president Florentino Pérez appeared before the media in the packed, pine-panelled press room at the Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday night to confirm the worst kept secret in football: Madrid have sacked coach Manuel Pellegrini and will be replacing him with José Mourinho.
Mourinho becomes the seventh coach Pérez has brought to the club. So far, none of them have won anything. The Portuguese must do so.
The change has been coming for a while. A long while. The only pity was that the first journalist to take the microphone at Wednesday's press conference didn't have the cheek to ask Pérez the simplest of questions: What took you so long? After all, Pellegrini's future has been clear for some time; Mourinho's too.
For the past few days, Mourinho's agent Jorge Mendes has been driving in and out of the Bernabéu, where he has been negotiating his contract with Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano. Officially, Pellegrini was still Madrid's coach but there was no attempt to hide -- no nipping in the back door, no secret rendezvous, no hiding in the boot or sitting behind black-out windows, no throwing the press off the scent.
Mourinho publicly announced he was going to Madrid immediately after the Champions League final, six days ago. And Real Madrid's league title challenge finally came to an end on the last Sunday of the season, 11 days ago. On Wednesday night, Pérez insisted that Madrid's very raison d'étre was simple: "to win"; Mourinho had just won the treble, wrapping up the perfect campaign with the trophy that most obsesses Madrid -- the European Cup. And he had done so by beating the team that most obsesses them -- Barcelona.
Logical, then, that Pellegrini should have gone: in a week, the difference between the two men had been laid bare, their suitability for the Madrid job sent crashing home. Logical but wrong. Pellegrini's future had already been decided. Long ago. Maybe even longer ago than anyone suspected.
Finally released, the ex-coach gave an interview in which, with characteristic calm politeness, he insisted that winning the league would have made no difference. And besides, he wouldn't have been the first coach to depart a winner: in 2003 Vicente del Bosque was released by Madrid having just won the league. He had also collected two European Cups and another La Liga title in the previous three years. The decision on Pellegrini had already been taken, even while Madrid still had a chance of winning the title.
The question is when. On April 10, when Madrid were defeated 2-0 by Barcelona at the Bernabéu? On March 10, when they were knocked out of the Champions League by Olympique Lyon, completing a run of six successive seasons without overcoming a single knock-out tie? On Nov. 10, when Second Division B side Alcorcón knocked them out of the Copa del Rey following a 4-0 reverse in the first leg, described as the most humiliating night in the club's history?
After each of those occasions, the sports daily Marca, the country's best-selling newspaper and one boasting -- and 'boasting' is the word - a close relationship with key parts of the club, including the president, demanded Pellegrini's head. After Alcorcón, it led on: "Go now"; after Lyon, on "Get out!"; and after Barcelona on "Well, well, the lie that is Pellegrini is finally over."
But it's not so much what that they said as the fact that they said it that made the covers so significant; that Marca had constantly, viciously and with complete impunity attacked Pellegrini. He recently complained that at now stage did anyone from the club speak in his defence; at no stage did anyone try to prevent the constant attacks. At best, the club turned a blind eye to the campaign against their coach. At worse, you imagined a special white phone, flashing away on the desk of the Marca editor.
Marca attacked Pellegrini well before he actually lost anything. Marca knew that they could attack Pellegrini well before he actually lost anything.
On Wednesday night, Pellegrini admitted he had not even spoken to his president since August. When they did speak, Pérez had not been impressed. The season had not even started. He had been even less impressed by Pellegrini's first press conference as Real Madrid manager at their Valdebebas HQ on July 11, in which the coach admitted that he wanted Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder to stay. Pérez wanted to sell both. So Madrid did sell them both.
"I don't know when my relationship with Pérez broke down [but] there was a problem from the start when I asked for Robben and Sneijder to stay," Pellegrini admitted, "they were vital players but they left. There were important differences at the start of the season about the construction of the squad. No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play."
Yet Pellegrini's relationship with Pérez never broke down. It never existed in the first place. The Madrid president wanted Arsene Wenger to be his coach. Only when that option was revealed to be impossible did he begrudgingly allow Valdano to go after Pellegrini. He was never convinced. Never mind this week, last week or the week before, never mind Barcelona, Lyon or Alcorcón, Pellegrini was sacked the day he started.