independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Succession sub-plot will heighten drama for Europe's most wanted

Taking over at Old Trafford would be the type of challenge Jose Mourinho craves, writes Dion Fanning

Jose Mourinho will surely find a way. There were reports last week that his agent had been told by several clubs that they would wait for word from New York where Pep Guardiola is in exile before entering talks with Mourinho. From Manchester to Paris, they hope to woo Pep and they want to be his choice. Only then, if they have failed, will they consider Mourinho.

The Champions League will resume at the perfect time for Mourinho to disrupt this new world order.

In the spring, Mourinho will want to remind the world of his pre-eminence and he will want to do that by winning the European Cup. If he can succeed with a Madrid team that looks to have become estranged from its coach, it will be his most stunning achievement since his last stunning achievement.

His last stunning achievement was way back in May when Madrid won the league, beating the greatest club side of this generation.

Mourinho's greatness has become mundane. His ability to guarantee success has become underappreciated because it is simply that: a guarantee. There has always been a legitimate wariness of his methods and his self-glorification but now it stands in contrast to Camelot and the contrast has damaged his reputation. He is second choice to Guardiola now when clubs decide they want a change. Guardiola offers something different, something more aesthetically pleasing and noble but it remains to be seen if he offers anything more permanent.

Mourinho's pact with clubs is more straightforward. They get romance and passion, as well as gut-wrenching misery and chaos. They also get success. No matter what happens, Mourinho will leave Madrid in the summer. He may not even survive until February after dropping Iker Casillas and losing to Malaga last night. He has already conceded the Spanish title to Barcelona and while he may not necessarily mean it, the gap could be too much. Mourinho is talking of England again and talking of how he wants to compete with Alex Ferguson. "For me, he's the boss," he told CNN, going over some old themes. "I call him the boss because he's the boss of the coaches and I hope that when I go back to English football he still manages Man United."

For Alex Ferguson, the stakes are as high. For Alex Ferguson, the stakes are always high. If he could win a third European Cup, he would establish himself unquestionably as the greatest British manager of all time. He may claim the title without another Champions League and, even with Real Madrid's poor form, United may struggle.

Ferguson has built a side to win the Premier League. They may have improved defensively if Nemanja Vidic is fully fit in February but they will still be a team that surrenders possession easily as they are a team without an imposing midfield.

Robin van Persie can win the game for United as Cristiano Ronaldo can for Madrid.

Ronaldo has already announced that he won't celebrate if he scores against Manchester United in seven weeks' time. Maybe we needed Ronaldo's words to see the practice of not celebrating for what it is. The falsely modest refusal to look happy against an old club echoes VS Naipaul's words that he has all the shyness of the very vain. Ronaldo's vanity always goes further. By announcing that he will be bashful if he scores in a couple of months, Ronaldo has advanced the cause of narcissists everywhere.

Ronaldo will be a real threat on the field and Ferguson also knows the power of Mourinho's management. If Ferguson decides that the summer is the moment to retire, Mourinho's words about wanting to face him will be irrelevant. Succeeding Ferguson at Old Trafford offers the kind of challenge Mourinho would crave, especially if he had denied Manchester United another European Cup months before.

Last Thursday's draw offered much more than one sparkling tie. Simply, there is not an uninteresting game.

Celtic defied all predictions in the group stage so they will hope to be written off against Juventus, even if only the foolish would do that.

The only thing Celtic have to fear is that Neil Lennon's reputation will be enhanced even further if they perform as impressively in the knockout stages. Celtic know that clubs in England and beyond are already interested in their manager but the speculation may be a price worth paying for the success he has brought. Even a team as unused to defeat as Juventus (although it has become a bit more familiar in the last month) will be apprehensive going to Glasgow.

Arsene Wenger will be apprehensive too. Arsenal's manager continues to rely on his record of Champions League qualification. Last week he pointed out that Arsenal were one of only five teams

in the last 16 who had also been there last season. Yet the other four – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich – have greater ambition than the last 16, something Arsenal haven't recently demonstrated.

Milan and Barcelona have knocked Arsenal out in recent years and Bayern are expected to do the same. There may be more questions asked about the character of the Bayern team than there is about Arsenal's, if only because the limp personality of the Arsenal team is now established.

Bayern's failure on their home ground in the final last year was deeply significant for German football. It has fed into the nation's anxiety about its footballers which became more acute at the European Championships and in the autumn..

It may be that they are overshadowed in this season's competition by Borussia Dortmund who have entered that dangerous place for a team, becoming the side everyone predicts could upset the old order.

Yet it would be no surprise if a team that won the Bundesliga by eight points last season and is so effectively and dynamically organised by Jurgen Klopp triumphed.

They face Shakhtar Donetsk, a team which also caught the eye in the group stages. They may not even have the same side in February. Willian has spoken of his eagerness to join a big European club. "I have tried to convince them many times to let me go," he said last week, making his position clear.

Klopp will also be wanted in the summer and it will be a test of the growing financial power of German football if he and his players remain another season at the club.

And there is Barcelona. Right now they are concerned only with the health of Tito Vilanova as their coach battles the cancer which has returned. Vilanova and Guardiola have been part of a club which has permanence and unity at its core. They have a handful of the world's great players and they have an exceptional commitment to the values of the club. Those values asserted themselves last week in dark times. Come February, when the Champions League resumes, they will again ensure that Barcelona is the most compelling club of all.

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