Watching Real Madrid beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday, two questions leapt immediately to mind. Firstly, what on earth has gone wrong at Barcelona? And secondly - and more intriguingly given that the recurrence of Tito Vilanova's illness is clearly a factor in Barca's rudderlessness - how on earth can Real Madrid be 16 points behind Barcelona in the league?
When Florentino Perez appointed Jose Mourinho in 2010, the brief was simple: topple Barcelona. That Real should turn to a figure like Mourinho was a sign of how desperate things had become. That he is a brilliant coach can hardly be doubted, but he is also a provocateur, a coach with no qualms about dabbling in the dark arts, prepared always to live in the grey areas by the edges of the rules. Real Madrid have always been a chaotic club, politics always bubbling close to the surface, but equally they have always done things a certain way. In the galacticos era a handbook was given to players to advise them how to behave. There has always been a sense that they should do things with decorum - and not, say, poke the assistant manager of an opponent in the eye, or make allegations about a referee that led to his resignation from the game.
Introducing Mourinho, probably the manager with the biggest ego in world football, to a club that already had, in Perez, the president with the biggest ego in world football, and, in Cristiano Ronaldo, the player with the biggest ego in world football, was always going to be a gamble. Yet when confrontation came, it seems to have been sparked less in that triangle than with the old guard of madridistas, those perhaps who represent that sense of what the club stood for before the days of tedious ranting about conspiracy theories.
There were reports in January that Iker Casillas, the club captain, and defender Sergio Ramos had issued an ultimatum to Perez demanding Mourinho be removed. They were denied by Perez, but it was hard not to read Mourinho's decision to drop Casillas earlier in the month as political. Ramos, it's known, had a changing-room row with Mourinho that - it was alleged - led to him being omitted from Real's side to face Manchester City in the Champions League.
Quite what sparked the ill-feeling is unclear and it's probably hopelessly naïve to believe it was entirely down to distaste at how things were being done. It has been suggested there was a dressing-room rift between Portuguese and Spanish elements - or, to put it another way, between those players represented by Mourinho's agent Jorge Mendes (Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria, who is Argentinian but joined Real Madrid from Benfica) and those who aren't.
Mourinho's machinations to remove Jorge Valdano as sporting director removed a buffer. He now reports directly to Jose Angel Sanchez, who is effectively the club's CEO. Given Real's most feted player, Ronaldo, shares an agent with his manager, who then advises Sanchez on whether, say, to extend Ronaldo's contract, which expires in 2015, it's easy to see why the suspicion of favouritism and ulterior motives could be raised - even if everything is above board. It's not impossible that Mendes could effectively offer Mourinho and Ronaldo as a package deal.
But which comes first, disquiet or poor results? It was the former Tottenham and Barcelona striker Steve Archibald who commented that team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the moment of victory and the reverse is probably true as well. Poor results bring discontent to the surface. Deposing Barcelona last season was an enormous effort that must have taken a great emotional toll. Real Madrid certainly aren't the first champions to begin their defence slowly, taking just four points from their first four games.
Since then they've won 12 out of 18 in the league. In almost any other league or at any other period in history to average over two points a game over two thirds of the season would be near enough championship form. But this is Spain, where two teams dominate all others and the slightest slip is punished. Real Madrid didn't become a bad team overnight, as they proved by demolishing Barca on Tuesday and as they may prove again on Saturday; they just had a slow start to the season, something you can't afford in Spain.
All the politicking seems to have assured that Mourinho will leave in the summer and the main issue now is how his time is remembered.
Winning the Copa del Rey - Real face Atletico in the final - in some ways is neither here nor there; far more important is that they beat - embarrassed even, Barcelona in the semi-final, for that stands as a reminder of his achievement in breaking a team that seemed invincible.
And there remains, of course, one other matter: that of the Champions League. Real go to Manchester United having drawn the home leg of their last 16 tie 1-1. Mourinho has said it's 50-50 who goes through, and he's probably right. The tenth European title that Real have been chasing since 2002 remains on. It all may seem acrimonious now but posterity would judge kindly a manager who brought down Barca and ended the quest for la decima. "If finishing 25 points behind Barcelona in the league means winning the Champions League, I would sign now," Casillas said in December, with rhetorical exaggeration. He may end up being about right.