Tuesday was the night when a Champions League campaign that was already interesting cranked things up to another level. It was a night of four teams, two games, 11 goals, two red cards … and one man.
Jose Mourinho is soccer's ultimate alpha male and inevitably becomes the central figure of any occasion in which he is featured, especially the biggest nights in this, Europe's top club competition. Yet what became even clearer over the course of an extraordinary evening was that just as the Real Madrid manager's presence and persona is felt so strongly wherever he goes, his absence can have just as much of an effect.
Real effectively stepped straight into the semifinals with a 4-0, first-leg crushing of Tottenham, wiping out an opponent that had been outstanding in its first Champions League campaign. It was a performance of efficiency and dominance that got the most out of the Spanish side's collection of world class stars – helped in no small measure by Peter Crouch's early red card for the Spurs.
It was Mourinho's night, one where everything he tried came off, every trick and tactic and bit of managerial imagination hit the target. In what has been a difficult first season for him in Madrid, this was an evening to be savored.
The Real hierarchy and public still needed some convincing of Mourinho's merits and methods, especially after a shocking home defeat to Sporting Gijon in La Liga play last weekend. After a series of spats with leading club officials, speculation has been rife that he could leave at the end of the season. Some Madrid members have made no secret of the fact they want him to go. They should be careful what they wish for.
Just ask Inter Milan. Ten months back Mourinho was still in Italy, taking Inter on a dramatic and emotional charge to the 2010 Champions League title, defying the odds and the skeptics every step of the way.
By top European levels, Inter, although boasting a strong squad capable of dominating its domestic league, had regularly fallen short against the best the continent had to offer. The club had lost in the first knockout round of the Champions League for three straight seasons.
Its charge through last season's event and eventual victory over Bayern Munich in the final can be attributed to Mourinho's sheer force of personality, demanding upon and instilling a winners' mindset onto his group. Inter was back.
Perhaps not. Tuesday was a night of abject misery for the defending champion, which was destroyed 5-2 at home by Schalke. The squad has changed little since Mourinho's departure at the end of last season, but first Rafa Benitez and now Leonardo have been unable to foster the same kind of belief and spirit.
The level of panic and confusion on display against Schalke was remarkable to see, and a monumental miracle is now needed for the team to remain in the competition. Even one of the goals of the season, a spectacular strike from Dejan Stankovic in the very first minute, was nowhere near enough. Inter was outthought, outplayed and outwitted by one of the Champions League's remaining underdogs.
Inter star Wesley Sneijder claimed last week that Leonardo is just like Mourinho in many ways but this showed that he is merely a passable imitator, just like how this version of Inter has none of the verve of its predecessor from last May.
While there was soul-searching at the place Mourinho left behind, there was buoyancy in the city he now calls home. Madrid feels pretty good about itself right now, with the possibility of a semifinal showdown with hated rival Barcelona now very much in the cards.
Mourinho's magic could be starting to take hold, just like it did on Inter at this point last season. There are a few players with the skills and aura to win the Champions League single-handedly, but only one coach.