Karanka on the pressures of El Classico and missing out on Bellingham

Former Real Madrid star and coach Aitor Karanka on the pressures of El Clasico, missing out on ‘real quality’ Jude Bellingham, working as Jose Mourinho’s No 2 and his love affair with Middlesbrough

  • Real Madrid take on Barcelona tomorrow in the first El Clasico of the season
  • Aitor Karanka spent time as both a player and assistant coach with Los Blancos
  • Follow Mail Sport’s new Champions League WhatsApp channel for all the breaking news 

‘Nothing creates more pressure than a quiet Bernabeu,’ says Aitor Karanka when asked about the psychological demands of playing for Real Madrid.

It’s not something Jude Bellingham has faced yet; he has had them in raptures, singing ‘Hey Jude’ and mimicking his arms spread wide goal celebration.

Tomorrow is the England midfielder’s first Clasico, away at Barcelona’s temporary ‘Olympic Stadium’ home; It’s something else Karanka knows plenty about.

He spent five years playing for Real Madrid – winning three Champions Leagues – and it all began with a debut against Barcelona. There were also plenty more Clasicos when he became Jose Mourinho’s assistant at the club in 2010.

He knows the fixture, and he knows Bellingham too: ‘Unfortunately I missed out on coaching him by a matter of two weeks,’ he says of his arrival at Birmingham City in July 2020.

Real Madrid are taking on Barcelona in LaLiga on Saturday in the first El Clasico of the season

Ex-Real Madrid star and coach Aitor Karanka knows what it takes to win the crunch clash

‘I spoke to the director general Xuandong Ren and I had watched the games from the previous season seeing Jude for the first time. I said: is this player with us next season? And he told me: no, he’s already sold. I said: you can’t do that to me!’

Despite the 17-year-old Bellingham’s departure for Borussia Dortmund. Karanka got to know him and his family, and so very little of what has happened since surprises him.

‘This is a kid who gets sold, and it was all agreed, but Birmingham still needed three points to secure safety and he says that until the club is safe he was going to keep playing.

‘He was 17-years-old at that point! Any other player if Borussia Dortmund have come and put down the money for you, you say: ‘thanks guys I’m off’. But not Jude. He thinks: this is my team, my city.

‘When you see a young man think like that you can only imagine what can happen to him when he also has everything as a footballer.’

The Spanish word ‘entorno’ comes up a lot in Karanka’s analysis. It’s used to describe those closest to a player and often has negative connotations – interfering parents, even the well-intentioned ones blighting many a career.

Jude’s father Mark appears to be hands-on and yet the antithesis of that negative influence. ‘And it’s not just the father. It’s the father, the mother, the brother and him,’ says Karanka underlining the importance of team Bellingham.

‘Both Jude and Jobe show on the pitch that they are well-balanced individuals. It’s no coincidence what is happening around them right now. It’s because there are people like that behind them.’

Karanka laughs at the recollection of his first meeting with Jobe: ‘He was 14-years-old at the time. I said to him: you must be Jude’s brother. They tell me you’re even better than him. He said: not better, much better!’

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Can Jobe really end up superior to Jude? ‘Well every day that gets a little bit more difficult,’ Karanka smiles. ‘And not because Jobe is not going to be very good but Jude is so good and he just keeps getting better and better.’

On Tuesday Bellingham scored his 11th goal for Real Madrid in 12 games. He has managed to score in each of his first three European Cup games for the club. No one has done that since one of Karanka’s team-mates from the 1998 side, Christian Karembeu.

‘It’s his personality,’ Karanka says. ‘He’s come in with the attitude that it’s all the same if I am 19, 20 years-old, I’m me and I’m not going to stop winning the ball back, I’m not going to stop scoring.’

The mental strength will also serve him well if and when the euphoria dips. Karanka started brilliantly winning that first Clasico to win the Spanish Super Cup in 1997.

‘I had only signed a couple of days before,’ he says. ‘And Madrid versus Barcelona is not just physically draining, you have to deal with it emotionally as well. But we won the game in the Bernabeu and I participated in the first goal with the pass for Raul.’

He’s underplaying it because the pass over the top for the captain was majestic. ‘It’s all about who’s on the end of it,’ he says modestly. He says he was ‘bounding up the steps of the Bernabeu four at a time’ on a high from picking up a trophy so soon.

But when he got to the dressing room and saw the trophy just left on the floor as the players showered it gave him a taste of how demanding the club is – it was silverware, but not one defines a season.

And deeper into that first year he experienced the demands that come from the public too. ‘I remember in Valencia we lost 6-2 and the next day I was with my mother and two people crossed my path and they said: ‘Que malo eres’.’

He said his mother reacted to the ‘you’re terrible’ slur, by asking Aitor why he hadn’t responded. ‘I said: what am I going to say we let in six!

‘You have to know how to handle the fact that one day you are the best and the next day, less and less thank god, they can insult you.

‘You have to be prepared for all that. The mental side of it is important. It’s like when there’s a Champions League game. When everyone is getting behind the team it’s fantastic, but when there is silence at the Bernabeu nothing puts as much pressure on a player as that.’

Karanka heaped praise on Jude Bellingham, who has scored 11 goals in 12 games since joining

Karanka (second right) spent three years as Mourinho’s assistant coach at the Bernabeu

Karanka was at the Bernabeu to see Bellingham score a 94th minute winner on his home debut. He knew better than to leave early.

‘My daughter was filming various chances and I said to her: ‘don’t you worry, I’ll get the goal.’ Sure enough he captured the moment when Bellingham scored and told his daughter: I’ll send it to you.

Bellingham goes into today’s Clasico amid a sense that the fixture has tamed considerably since the days when Karanka was Mourinho’s number two.

‘It was intense,’ he says. ‘There was a period when there were three or four Clasicos in about two or three weeks. The Spain team was world Champion, there was Cristiano and Messi, and the best Spanish players on both sides.

‘And when Jose arrived Madrid had gone many years without getting to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and Barça had practically an entire team from the youth system.’

He says the enormity of their job became apparent after the first Clasico of the Mourinho era ended 5-0 to Barcelona in the Bernabeu.

Asked if, perversely, that served them well, he smiles: ‘I don’t think a 5-0 ever serves you well, three would have been enough!’

Madrid were never as open again and they won the Cup at the end of the season against Barcelona, and La Liga the following year.

When Mourinho left Madrid in 2013 Karanka moved to Middlesbrough where all that he had learned in and around the biggest rivalry in European football was put to good use.

‘I had offers including one from the Premier League but one of the best things that happened to me in football was that Steve Gibson appeared and wanted me to go to Middlesbrough,’ he says.

Karanka, who says he still hears cries of ‘up the Boro’ when he’s back in England, talks about losing heavily to Brighton five games in and being called into Gibson’s office fearing the sack.

Instead he says the Chairman put his hand on his shoulder, told him that, with him as coach, Middlesbrough were going to the Premier League, and then took him out to dinner.

‘He is, as you English say: A gentleman’, says Karanka. The following season Middlesborough made the play-offs and the season after that went up automatically.

A decade on from his first management job the passion is not dulled. We’ve talked for 90 minutes, ‘I could go for extra-time and penalties,’ he says.

Karanka knows all about the pressures and strains of playing in El Clasico for Real Madrid

He also reflected on memories of Middlesbrough, who he got promoted to the Premier League

It’s clear he wants to get back doing what, playing aside, there is no substitute for. He wants to coach again.

‘It was a shame at Birmingham because it was during the pandemic with the stadium empty I couldn’t enjoy the Birmingham fans. As a player I arrived at Real Madrid at just the right time and at Birmingham it was the opposite.’

It might have all been so different if Boy Wonder had not been taken from him before he could pick his first team. How would he handle him were he coaching him now?

‘With top players you tell them how the team plays, how the rival will play and then you want them to be themselves because if Kroos is Kroos and Modric is Modric and all the good players are just being themselves [it works].

‘Unexpected things happen on a pitch and with great players it’s not just that they can play, it’s that they are very intelligent. And if you have intelligence, personality and real quality then that’s Jude Bellingham.’

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