With the dropping of Iker Casillas to the bench, it's as if Jose Mourinho was begging to be sacked by Florentino Perez, and it's not an enormous stretch of the imagination to see why. A firing would result in pay-off for a handsome contract that runs until 2016, a bit of time off, the freedom to look for a new gig in the summer and a ready-made excuse for failing to win the desperately desired tenth European Cup title for Real Madrid.
Even before the run-up to Christmas, the behaviour from the Real Madrid boss had not exactly been impeccable, even by the Portuguese provoker's own standards. The usual running battles with the media came to a head when he and members of his coaching staff asked a reporter from Radio Marca to come into a side room after a press conference and demand to know a source for a story, in the process calling Antón Meana a 's**8' of his industry, according to the journalist in a report of the event.
The same weekend, a lackadaisical Real Madrid dropped two more points to lowly Espanyol in the Santiago Bernabeu, even before Barcelona and beaten Atletico Madrid to extend the lead at the top to 13 points. "Practically impossible," was the message to the world from Mourinho on the club's league title hopes. It came a day after his club president had publicly backed his manager offering his "recognition, confidence in your work, affection and support."
The normally reticent Perez was forced to undo some of the damage from Mourinho with his signal of surrender to Barcelona by reminding supporters during a speech that "as a principle, Real Madrid never gives up." The club president was speaking again on Thursday, claiming that life contained too much drama and problems as it was and that football was an activity to be enjoyed and cherished without stress. Some hope.
Two days after that, Mourinho gave his response to that plea and and it involved a metaphorical middle finger and the dropping of Iker Casillas for the first time in ten years for technical reasons, without a proper explanation. Had Madrid won their game then the sting of a monumental decision might have been lessened. But instead, his side lost 3-2 to Malaga to go into the winter break 16 points behind Barcelona and having just a couple of months to pull the side's horribly failing form back to together, before a testing double-header against Manchester United, never mind the second leg of a Copa del Rey tie against Celta Vigo on 9th January where Madrid are 2-1 down.
The winter break in Spain should have been a time of quiet reflection and perhaps keeping one's head down, but that's not the way of Mourinho. Apparently, the Malaga setback proved that "the only thing that doesn't change in football is that the coach picks the team." The reaction from the office of the president can't have been a pleasant one, with the veiled message that Mourinho could do whatever he liked with the squad and that the only way to stop him would be to get rid of him.
Mourinho doesn't say things by accident. Every word has a reason behind it and is carefully planned. This is why it feels like this is a concerted effort to lose the last friend that the coach has at Real Madrid. Former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, was jettisoned some time ago, with Mourinho then moaning that there was no one else to speak in defence of the club. The relationship with the supporters has never been close since Mourinho has caused an awful lot of nonsense in his time in the Spanish capital, complained about the lack of noise at the Bernabeu and recently gave the fans in the stadium the chance to boo him if they wanted by going onto the pitch 40 minutes before the game against Atlético Madrid. There have also been open criticisms of the club's youth structure and the work of the coach of the second team, Alberto Toril, for not providing players who can play in the tactical system of the first.
Indeed, the normally strong bonds with his players that Mourinho specialises in seems to be entirely absent this season. The Spanish international contingent lead by Casillas and Sergio Ramos have never really seen eye-to-eye with Mourinho due to his policy of constantly stirring up the opposition, and it's no great surprise that these are the two players who have both suffered this season by being benched. The commitment of Angel di María, Karim Benzema and Fabio Coentrao have all been questioned openly by Mourinho in recent weeks, who seems at a loss to know why his footballers are not showing the same effort and passion this season as last.
In many ways, Florentino Perez has got exactly what is expected from his coach. Mourinho has delivered on part of his work by making Real Madrid a European force again with two Champions League semi-final appearances and closing the gap on Barcelona with a league title win and victory at the Camp Nou last season, but in the process Perez has had to turn the other cheek to all the other antics which takes place as Mourinho unashamedly tries to get an advantage in any situation in any way he can.
It's difficult to know how much longer the club president can keep doing that. It's hard enough when the side is winning, never mind in the doldrums as Madrid are at the moment. The problem for Perez though is that by employing the "best coach in the world" and affording him such power at the club, he has made a rod for his own back. If the manager departs, then finding a replacement won't be an easy one and nor will handling Cristiano Ronaldo, a footballer who is unhappy at his current contract and shares the same agent as Mourinho, in the form of the ubiquitous Jorge Mendes.
Whether Mourinho is backed or sacked in the upcoming weeks, the Real Madrid coach will come out as the winner. He'll either be too important to the club to be fired or he'll suddenly be an awful lot richer and free to move to yet another high-paying job. It's no wonder that the Portuguese now feels that he can get away with whatever kind of behaviour he wants, even dropping the club captain and sitting sixteen points off the top of the table.