James Lawton: Blaming everyone but himself making under-fire Jose Mourinho less than special
There are many ways of charting Jose Mourinho's latest lurch into the dangerous, potentially fatal waters of lost confidence, but one of them is running deeper than any analysis of his misfiring Manchester United.
It lies in a cursory examination of his willingness to blame almost everybody but himself. That has always been part of his modus operandi, even when he was notching up one new trophy after another. But then it seemed to be just one more badge of arrogance, an obsession with his own infallibility.
Now even some of his most fervent erstwhile admirers are wincing at his eagerness to escape blame for every miss-step since last season's disaster at Chelsea.
Mourinho has hit a crisis of prestige which could hit a new dimension tomorrow at noon when his former whipping boy Claudio Ranieri brings his champions Leicester City to Old Trafford.
The more Mourinho protests his innocence, the more he provokes questions that in the past could only have come in the most improbable of nightmares.
Not so long ago La Gazzetta dello sport, the bible of Italian football, was among his greatest advocates. It saw a brilliant and mysterious power in his masterful delivery of the Champions League to an Inter Milan which could not begin to match the dazzling virtuosity of semi-final victims and reigning champions Barcelona in 2010 but still found a way past Pep Guardiola's team on the way to beating another powerhouse, Bayern Munich, in the final.
Then, Mourinho was football's supreme alchemist. This week it was made to seem like another age when La Gazzetta splashed the huge headline: 'The Special One is not at home anymore'. It was the paper's answer to its own question: Are you still special?
Mourinho is now threatened by the dangerously exquisite irony of Ranieri making the point even more directly at Old Trafford.
Mourinho was fired for a second time by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich after losing to Ranieri, who he had brutally mocked in the past. No doubt that situation was sharpened by Ranieri's own sacking by the oligarch in favour of Mourinho in 2004.
But if there is no such history at United, there is a growing sense that Mourinho may indeed have lost much of the career momentum which persuaded the Old Trafford hierarchy to overlook fears about some of his more extreme operating style.
Those doubts first clattered home when Guardiola shaped a superb victory for Manchester City at Old Trafford.
Subsequent defeats by Feyenoord and Watford have hardly been softened by an unimpressive win at third division Northampton in the League Cup.
There was more bleak evidence that Wayne Rooney (four goals in his last 25 games) is another man, despite Mourinho's somewhat desperate public support, lost in the least encouraging terrain of his entire career.
The theory in Mourinho's old Italian stronghold is that the Special One has drawn too heavily on his own and his players' resources.
"It looks," said La Gazzetta, "as if he has squeezed too much from himself and his players and now he looks around to see what is left."
If Ranieri, hailed as the Miracle Man in his home country after last season's stunning title charge, also finds, like Guardiola and Watford's Italian coach Walter Mazzarri, an empty United cupboard, it will re-kindle a debate waged eight years ago when Ranieri was at Juventus and Mourinho was laying down the first iron chains of resolve at Inter.
Ranieri, mildly enough, said: "I'm not like Mourinho. I don't have to win to be sure of myself."
Mourinho's response was as withering as any of the diatribes he has directed at such as Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti - his successor at both Chelsea and Real Madrid who, provocatively enough, has also won Champions League titles at two clubs.
Of Ranieri, who was 58 at the time, Mourinho said: "He is right when he says that I'm very demanding of myself and have to win to be sure of things. This is why I've won so many trophies in my career.
"Ranieri, on the other hand, does have the mentality of someone who does not need to win.
"He is almost 70 years old. He has won a Super Cup and another small trophy and he is too old to change his mentality. He is old and he hasn't won anything.
"I studied Italian five hours a day for many months to ensure I could communicate with players, media and fans. Ranieri had been in England five years and struggled to say good morning and afternoon."
If Mourinho has any time for reflection at Old Trafford tomorrow at noon it may be the sombre one that against all the odds it is he, at 53, who will be showing the most conspicuous signs of battle fatigue on the touchline.
This week he has been dismissing the heaviest of the criticism that he has been far too anxious to spread the blame away from himself as United have, after the encouraging start of three straight victories, touched some of futility they displayed last season under Louis van Gaal.
Naturally, Mourinho has been quick to say that hosing down the influence of the Dutchman is more than the work of a few weeks.
"I know," he says, "that some football Einsteins have tried to delete 16 years of my career. They have tried to delete the unbelievable history of Manchester United football club and focus on a bad week with three bad results. But that's the new football. It's full of Einsteins."
Pure Mourinho, of course, but the more he protests, the more he invites speculation that at football's Theatre of Dreams he may well be building not a stage but a bonfire of some of his worst vanities.
Ranieri, we must also suspect, despite his dogged amiability, will not be averse to lighting the torch.