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‘Mourinho Made us Believe We Weren’t Underdogs’- Granero Reveals How Real Madrid Dethroned Barca


In a Goal exclusive, Esteban Granero reveals how the best manager he’s ever had played a pivotal role in los Blancos’ 2011-12 title triumph

When Real Madrid face Barcelona, the football world stops to watch.

It will be no different on Saturday, although both teams have fallen well short of their own astronomically high standards in recent times. Compared to a decade ago, El Clasico has lost some of its lustre.

With Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in opposing dugouts, these games were about more than two fierce rivals battling for supremacy on the pitch.

They were little short of ideological warfare between clubs and managers with conflicting philosophies. Both believed they were the best, not just in Spain, but anywhere. The sense of excitement and anticipation was almost too much to bear.

“It was probably the biggest fight in football since Wenger’s Arsenal and Fergie’s Manchester United. It was a huge fight. We had different plans. We both had great players, probably the best players in the world at that time,” former Madrid midfielder Esteban Granero tells Goal.

“We had different identities, but we were two clubs who were made for winning and only one could win. It was like (Anatoly) Karpov and (Gary) Kasparov battling to be the world champion in chess. It was a huge battle. Of course, it was very stressful but also very fun.”

In 2012, Real finally came out on top as a crucial 2-1 win at the Nou Camp set them on course for a first Liga title in four years. Sami Khedira put Mourinho’s side in front early on, but Alexis Sanchez struck back.

Minutes later, Cristiano Ronaldo latched onto Mesut Ozil’s pass and fired in the decisive goal from a tight angle, all but ending Barcelona’s glorious reign.

An appreciation of their opponent’s undoubted quality only enhanced the achievement.

“They were amazing. That’s why we have all the credit, because we were the only ones who were able to beat them across a full championship. We won at Camp Nou and we managed to get 100 points,” recalls Granero.

“They were probably one of the best teams ever. These players coming from the academy and playing this beautiful football, with the best Messi ever doing what he wanted. It was good to see, and it was good to play against, but we were able to fight against them and win.”

Mourinho’s demanding management style was pivotal to Real’s record-breaking success, as they scored more goals and collected more points than any team in La Liga history.

In press conferences and on the touchline, he relished playing the villain, but was meticulous in how he motivated his squad and executed his plan to disrupt Barcelona’s dominance.

“I spent two full years with him at Real Madrid and, to me, he’s the best manager I ever had, from every point of view,” Granero admits.

“There was the tactical point of view, of course, but also his mentality and his relationship with the players. And how honest he is. Everything put together, in a situation where we, as Real Madrid, were one step behind the best Barcelona in history.

“We were like the underdog. But being Real Madrid and being the underdog is difficult to handle. He made us believe that we weren’t underdogs. We were able to fight against them and beat them. He not only told us that it was possible, he made it possible.

“In the first year, we won the Copa del Rey against them and, in the second year, we won the league. We made the semi-finals of the Champions League but lost on penalties to Bayern Munich. It was the best achievement in my football career, and it was because of him.”

Real’s resurgence also owed a lot to the irrepressible Ronaldo, who was engaged in a personal duel with Messi to be considered the best player of his generation.

He struck 46 times in La Liga and 60 across all competitions in 2011-12, although Messi still pipped him to the Pichichi and the European Golden Shoe with a scarcely believable grand total of 73 goals.

Ronaldo’s achievements were underpinned by a single-minded focus and a relentless work ethic, which Granero saw up close every day.

“He was the best player in the world at that time, together with Messi. They were both so different but so far away from everyone else,” he says.

“Playing alongside him was very fun and also very inspiring because he always wanted more. He was a real winner. A real fighter who never gave up when we were losing.

“When we were winning three- or four-nil, he always wanted more. He was that kind of player. He was training hard every session and taking care of himself. That’s why he can still play at the top level.”

Granero, who went on to play for Queens Park Rangers, Real Sociedad and Espanyol, prided himself on his vision and passing ability.

He represented Spain at youth level but never won a single senior cap as a squad blessed with so many technically gifted midfielders won three successive international tournaments.

It was an era of embarrassing riches, where they could call upon Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and David Silva.

Granero encountered them all at different stages of his career, but, of his former team-mates, Xabi Alonso is the midfield colleague who stands out most.

“He’s so competitive, he has the quality, and he has the game in his head,” Granero enthuses. “It’s happening in his head before it happens on the pitch.

“This is a good quality for a midfielder, and I tried to learn from him in every training session, and to behave like him inside and outside the pitch. He’s a good example, not only of a midfielder, but a football player.”

Last January, Granero joined third division Marbella as part of their ambitious project to reach La Liga. At 33, he’s determined to keep going for a while yet, but has also been making plans for the future.

Six years ago, he set up Olocip, a company that uses artificial intelligence to help businesses and football clubs to model and predict performance.

It’s a subject that has long interested Granero, whose analytical, problem-solving approach helped him to scale the heights he did as a player.

Alongside leading scientists, those skills are now being put to a variety of different uses, from forecasting how a potential signing might fare in a new team to supporting financial services with fraud prevention.

The last year also saw Olocip involved in Spain’s response to the constantly changing threat of coronavirus.

“We thought it was the time to help,” he explains. “What we did wasn’t for profit. We made these models that were able to predict the evolution and growth of the pandemic, over the next month, in every region in Spain. So, you can anticipate, for example, problems in the hospitals and take better decisions about how to manage the restrictions.

“Every one of our scientists left what they were doing and started working on this in order to help the government. I think it was the responsibility of not just every person, but every company, to give their best in order to help the community, and this is what we did.”

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