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Now, Jose holds the aces

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WE MEET AGAIN: Alex Ferguson is greeted by Real Madrid official Emilio Butragueno in Barcelona last week

Ahead of their Champions League clash, United boss Ferguson's blood was surely chilled by what he saw at the Nou Camp.

His bottom lip drooped with magnificent petulance and his sarcasm was blistering, worthy of a spurned, outrageous diva. Jose Mourinho coming in for the kill is not the prettiest sight but who can look away for a moment?

With Pep Guardiola already a memory of more imperious days and his former right-hand man and successor Tito Vilanova marooned in a New York clinic, the man minding Barcelona's suddenly dishevelled image, poor Jordi Roura, must have been tempted to sue for surrender long before Mourinho's resurrected Real completed their work of destruction at the Nou Camp.

What a piece of work it was - singled-minded, multi-talented and, with Cristiano Ronaldo unassailable at its heart, capable of bringing intimidation to any corner of football. Most specifically, of course, this was surely true of Old Trafford next week, and though you do have to get up very early in the morning, and formidably armed, to bring any of that oppressive commodity into the life of Sir Alex Ferguson, his blood was surely chilled by so much of what he saw.

It was, after all, definitive Mourinho. It was the most compelling of reminders that this man operates almost entirely on his own terms. Some men crumble when they get pushed to the edge of the precipice. Mourinho simply revels in the drama of it - and the new opportunity it provides for him to prove that you do not hoard trophies as he does if you are not capable of reinventing yourself - and your team - when the pressure reaches the highest levels.

Mourinho's Real didn't merely beat an increasingly uncertain, even distraught Bar?a in the second leg of the semi-final of the Copa del Rey. They persecuted every one of their new uncertainties. The young and driving Milan harassed and hustled Bar?a in the 2-0 San Siro defeat that so imperilled their Champions League favourites' status. Real, by contrast, picked them off in the most withering style.

Ronaldo was largely unplayable. Angel di Maria worked exquisitely and Xabi Alonso again produced a degree of power and authority at the back of midfield which reminded us yet again of Liverpool's loss when he said adios to Merseyside.

The entire Madrid team seemed to be emboldened by Mourinho's assertion that such games against Barcelona are the ones you have to live for, the ones that define the level of a team's commitment.
Yes, Bar?a have run away with La Liga, just as United have laid waste the Premier League, but can either of them relish the idea of exchanging cold steel with a team capable of hitting the heights of Real when they are at peace, however briefly, with themselves and their extraordinary coach?

Ferguson was understandably elated when last week he left the Bernabeu with a 1-1 draw. It was indeed testament to the best fighting qualities of his team. But in the heat of the Nou Camp action, with the great Lionel Messi rendered as anonymous as he is ever likely to be on any football field, United's achievement was inevitably scaled down. Suddenly it looked like a small deposit on survival in the battle for a place in the quarter-finals of the tournament which Mourinho has so plainly earmarked as a suitable point of departure at the end of his turbulent stay at the Bernabeu.

It is hard to imagine a more spectacular exit line, a unique place in the game as the only coach to win the European title with three separate clubs and the most enduring evidence of a capacity to turn any situation to his advantage. Real's former coach John Toshack gave Mourinho some ultimate praise. He said that he might well have created the momentum for another stunning triumph, because since arriving in Spain he had always seen the breaking of Bar?a, rather than any routine compilation of silverware, as his greatest challenge.

La Liga might provide random ambushes in places like Seville and Granada but always there was the gut-check of the games with Barcelona. And how better could Real feel after going to the Nou Camp and so ruthlessly working on every new doubt about the ability of the world's most revered team to win a fourth Champions League in seven years?

By the end of Tuesday's game the Nou Camp was in mourning and for Ferguson there was the cold contemplation of the threat of a Real who had achieved near-perfect counter-attack. He can only hope that his team will find the best of its competitive character, that Robin van Persie will be at his most predatory and Wayne Rooney can do more than apply himself to the rigours of midfield containment. There is, it has rarely been more evident, so much to contain. None of it, Ferguson would surely agree, is more threatening than the unique and apparently unbreakable will of Jose Mourinho.

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