Why United have gone cold on Mourinho as Fergie’s replacement
Doesn't time fly? It is nearly nine years since that free-kick came bBarclayack off Tim Howard and Costinha pounced for the 90th-minute goal that sent Porto into the Champions' League semi-finals, prompting the ecstatic dash along the Old Trafford touchline that introduced England to Jose Mourinho, superstar.
His achievements with Chelsea would include the temporary eclipse of Sir Alex Ferguson, but Mourinho never lost a respect for the Manchester United manager enhanced only minutes after the final whistle had confirmed Porto's triumph. There was pandemonium in the dressing room. "You would have thought we had won the World Cup," Mourinho recalled. "And then there was a knock on the door. It was Alex, with Gary Neville. As they came in, everyone fell silent…"
They had come to offer congratulations. While Neville shook the hand of every player, Ferguson warmly invited Mourinho to join him for a glass of wine that would be the first of many. United had lost but Old Trafford won a special place in Mourinho's heart, and when he embarked on the Italian mission that was to culminate in a second Champions League with Internazionale in 2010, the succession to Ferguson at Old Trafford was already among his ambitions.
The tide of events, however, no longer favours Mourinho as firmly as even nine months ago. Then, Manchester City looked to have established themselves as England's leading club, perhaps hastening the moment when Ferguson would step aside, while Real Madrid reigned in Spain, giving every appearance of the calibre and unity required to capture the Champions' League for the first time in 11 years and thereby complete an unprecedented hat-trick by Mourinho; at present he shares with Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld the distinction of having made two clubs champions of Europe.
Now, after a deterioration in relationships with the Bernabeu hierarchies both on and off the field and a Barcelona resurgence likely to deprive Real of the Liga title, Mourinho prepares to renew friendly rivalry with Ferguson on less flattering terms. When their teams meet on Wednesday in the Madrid leg of the tie of the Champions' League's first knockout round, it could be the beginning of a very different end from those to which Mourinho has become accustomed.
At Porto and Inter there were tears. At Chelsea many fans have never stopped wishing he were back. At Madrid there will be only indifferent shrugs if the Manchester leg on 5 March is swiftly followed by an announcement of mutual consent.
And the notion of Mourinho walking into the United job has become almost risible, Sir Bobby Charlton giving public voice to the widespread belief, even when the Portuguese appeared quite clearly the world's most successful manager, that his combination of confrontational ways and pragmatic football rendered him unsuitable to follow in the footsteps of Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson.
United, meanwhile, are rejuvenated favourites to win the Premier League and Ferguson appears able to carry on for ever; Rene Meulensteen, the first-team coach since 2008, is becoming increasingly recognised as not only his most influential assistant but – as and when the balance between their functions needs to be disturbed – a possible successor. In other words, there may not be a job at Old Trafford any time soon, for Mourinho or anyone else.
So where will the Special One – his record remains consistent with that description, for few managers win national titles in three countries before their 50th birthday, or European trophies at a rate of three in eight seasons – go next? AC Milan is a possibility, Paris St-Germain less so now that Carlo Ancelotti seems settled. It is more likely time for a long-awaited return to the Premier League.
Although Mourinho's public commitment to the English game is sincere, so is his recognition that the door to another Manchester club was closed when City gave key posts to the former Barcelona executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, whose views would seem to coincide with Charlton's.
Liverpool, likewise, would hardly disturb the progress made under Brendan Rodgers and, when the time comes for Arsenal to replace Arsène Wenger, they will aspire to another aesthete with a catholic view of club development, such as Jürgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund. Tottenham, although they have twice tried for Mourinho, can hardly be too dismayed with the start made by his former aide Andre Villas-Boas. Newcastle lack a Mourinho-sized budget. Which leaves Chelsea.
Don't laugh. His thoughts often turn fondly to the Bridge and he would not be deterred by the rod that past success would make for his own back, because the insecurity that daunts most humans is something beyond Mourinho's comprehension, let alone experience. The same applies to any misgivings about Roman Abramovich's tendency to change managers often.
That Benitez's hold on the job is tenuous can be taken for granted, and while Abramovich did become terminally exasperated with Mourinho last time round, they patched up any lingering differences long ago. Were he to rejoin Chelsea a feelgood factor would envelop the support once more.
There would remain difficult questions about the team, not least their leadership – the young John Terry was one thing, this one quite another, while Didier Drogba is gone and Frank Lampard going – but since when did the Russian trouble himself with detail?
Wednesday's game reunites Cristiano Ronaldo with Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson joked that he should have demanded more money when selling the player — "Should have asked for 150 [millon pounds] and would probably have got it!" — and added that he does not see any realistic chance of re-signing him: "You are talking about hundreds of millions so I just can't see it happening. He is pivotal to everything they do."
United hope Real's Copa del Rey semi-final second leg against Barcelona could work against them. It takes place the weekend before they go to Old Trafford, and Ferguson said: "He won't want to lose to Barcelona, so he has to play a strong team in those games."
Independent News Service