It's less than two years since The Special One burst the Barcelona bubble. In 2010, Jose Mourinho expertly guided Inter Milan past Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League en route to making the Serie A side European Champions. The Portuguese manager, who'd already won fame for his exploits at Porto and Chelsea, used the victory - and it was the dethroning of Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and company that won him his plaudits rather than the straightforward win over Bayern Munich in the final - as a stepping stone to one of the ultimate prizes in managership: Real Madrid.
And now Barcelona are getting their own back.
The second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals shouldn't matter. It's a more or less irrelevant domestic affair, a trivial pursuit in relation to the big prizes of a Champions League trophy or a La Liga title. The fact that Madrid are on the verge of being knocked out by Barcelona - who are five points adrift in the league - shouldn't matter. And yet it does.
This is the only trophy in which Mourinho's men have managed to best their arch-rivals since the tiki-taka renaissance began proper in the 2008/09 season. Ignore the Copa del Rey, which Madrid are currently trying their best to do, and you ignore the one real triumph they've had over the
bland face of evil European champions. Yes, Los Blancos are favourites to win the league this year, but the end of the season is a long way away and emotions are running high. Somehow, the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey have turned into a crisis of faith for Madrid.
Jose Mourinho thrives on a cult of personality. Wherever he's gone, he's built a siege mentality. Us against the world, says he. Up until now, his players had bought into that without question. But the inability to beat Barcelona - ostensibly what the man was brought in for in the first place - has shown the first cracks in his armour.
Sergio Ramos is overruling his tactical advice during training. Rumours of a Portugal vs. Spain war in the Madrid dressing room are intensifying (hint for the neutrals: join the side that Pepe won't try to torture to death) and even the Special One himself is apparently dropping hints that he's unhappy at Madrid and is thinking of moving on this summer.
Mourinho's trying to defuse the situation with logic:
At the moment, we're leaders with a five-point lead on the team everyone says are the best in the world. Before I arrived here, the club was used to being knocked out of the King's Cup by teams from a lower division, and we won the competition last season. And then we won six games out of six in the Champions League. So I think we haven't got as many problems as people want to say.
But logic goes flying out of the window with the Clasico, as his players' behaviour demonstrates. The battles between Real Madrid and Barcelona are vicious, all-consuming affairs, and unless Mourinho can figure out a way to break Guardiola's hold on winning the things, he's going to see his sky-high reputation continue to slip down towards earth.
For the Special One, it's simple. Win at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, and all is forgiven and forgotten in the face of the triumph. Failure - especially embarrassing failure - could spell the beginning of the end.