Immortality the prize as Special One plots his way to Wembley
They still remember the punkish Jose Mourinho here: the one who dashed down the Old Trafford touchline nine years ago as if celebrating the simultaneous end of war and taxes. Real Madrid's manager has packed that renegade persona away, perhaps in the hope of impressing the Old Trafford board into giving him Alex Ferguson's job when it finally becomes available.
A victory for Real in the second leg will bring no exuberant pitch-side dash from Cristiano Ronaldo's master. Those days have passed, Mourinho claims. Knocking United out in 2004 with his pugnacious Porto side was the big gate-crash of Mourinho's early career. It led to a Champions League title and the Chelsea job.
To repeat that feat at Ferguson's expense would elicit a less melodramatic reaction. "I live the situation with a different approach, with different emotions," Mourinho said. "To win a big match is the same now, the same as nine years ago. To lose is the same but the approach is completely different.
"That match was my first season playing Champions League football. Now I have more than 100 matches and I think I can control my emotions a different way. If I lose, I don't cry, and if I win I don't run 100 metres.
"But in the end it is the same."
Listening to him say this, you might feel the game has kicked him around more than he thought it ever could back when he looked untouchable.
Mourinho, it turns out, is not immune from the setbacks of middle age, in which the business of mastering a job is beset by unforeseen external difficulties. Roman Abramovich was very much foreseeable. But no matter how many people warned him, Mourinho could not have known that the Bernabeu would strip him of his authority with such brutal force.
The contrast with Ferguson was not lost on Mourinho as a troubled season took a promising turn with the back-to-back Clasico wins over Barcelona.
If Ronaldo's band advance past Manchester United tonight then Mourinho will appear in a bright new light. Real's coveted 10th European title will seem a realistic proposition again and a reign that promised so much will stop swinging in the wind.
To see him so enfeebled over the past few months has been a disquieting experience. Many will say he had it coming. Plenty will feel he has failed to capitalise on last season's impressive league campaign, in which Real rattled up with 121 goals and 100 points. With Ronaldo to the fore, Mourinho was ideally placed to smash Barcelona off their bohemian perch.
Dressing-room mutinies and sullen press conferences are not what we have come to expect from him. Nor do we associate him with vacillation in the second half of games. At Chelsea and Inter Milan, Mourinho would bounce from the dugout, spot a problem, solve it, then add another victory to his pile. Against United in the first leg he seemed to lack the old confidence and authority.
One triumph is already his in this turbulent late winter. Mourinho has found a way to punish the press for their digging. He has withdrawn his script-writerly co-operation with reporters. He is in no mood at the moment to toss them sardines.
But is there another agenda? To be a candidate for Ferguson's job, the theory goes, he needs to tone down the agent provocateur act. He could not frighten the horses, the sponsors or the Glazers.
But all that can wait. There is plenty to occupy him in a game that will "stop the world", according to Ferguson's counterpart. And he is right.
Ronaldo returns to his university. Ryan Giggs may make his 1,000th competitive appearance. Two huge traditions collide. The field will glitter with talent and purpose and pride.
There is an upswing in Mourinho's fortunes, and this is his chance to regain control. By beating United he could unite the dressing-room behind him again for one last push. Who cares if a lot of the players hate him when he leaves in May?
A 10th European Cup for Real would render him immortal. Huge obstacles still stand between Madrid and Wembley in May but Mourinho will feel back in control of his own fate if he can add United to Barcelona on his list of recent victims. (© Daily Telegraph, London)