Jose Mourinho’s chances of becoming Manchester United manager one day have undoubtedly increased following the way he conducted himself during Real Madrid’s Champions League victory over the English giants this week; but the match at Old Trafford proved even more conclusively that he isn’t needed just yet.
Mourinho has been schmoozing Alex Ferguson for several years now and his deliberately toned-down performance before, during and after Real’s 2-1 victory highlighted just how determined he is to be seen as a potential successor to the most successful manager in British football history.
The seemingly impossible task of replacing Ferguson is one that appeals to the Special One; to be the man that took over Fergie’s mantle and made United even more successful is the kind of epitaph Mourinho would relish.
He spent 45 minutes chatting to Ferguson, who will surely be kingmaker and choose his own replacement when he retires, before kick-off on Tuesday; then he made a point of seeking out the Scotsman at the end and attempted to woo United fans by repeatedly insisting the better team had lost following Real’s controversial triumph at the Theatre of Dreams.
Mourinho even took time to defend Ferguson’s bold decision to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench, saying: “Alex won the right over the years; every decision is correct and should never have a question mark in front. He is the best and he creates an incredible history. You are nobody, I am nobody, to put a question mark — and his team was very well organised.”
The only problem for Jose and his grand scheme is that, for once, he has got it completely right; Alex does remain a legend and despite Tuesday’s final result he also won the tactical battle against his only real rival to be regarded as the best manager currently working in Europe.
The decision to leave out Rooney was a huge and controversial one; it caused a ripple around the press room at Old Trafford as 270 representatives of the worldwide media tried to digest what it meant and how United’s team would be affected. Most, for sure, held a secret belief that Ferguson had got it wrong or at the very least had taken a big gamble; but United’s performance proved otherwise.
Rooney’s absence allowed Danny Welbeck to play off Robin van Persie — and the England striker’s contribution to the opening hour was absolutely crucial in helping United take a 1-0 lead. Welbeck’s job was not only to assist van Persie but also to drop deep and make it difficult for Xabi Alonso, the man who acts as Real’s metronome, to distribute the kind of passes that often allow him to dominate a game.
With Ryan Giggs surprisingly chosen to start on the right of midfield, Ferguson also had an effective plan to keep Cristiano Ronaldo quiet, teaming the veteran with the ever-improving right-back Rafael to effectively wipe out Madrid’s star man — until, with United down to 10 men, he ultimately struck the winning goal. By that time, of course, Fergie’s game plan had been shattered by a refereeing decision; so the way he whipped the Old Trafford crowd into a frenzy in the final 20 minutes was a desperate last throw of the dice.
Unfortunately for Ferguson, who was so distraught that he refused to speak to the media and sent his assistant Mike Phelan to the post-match press conference, it wasn’t enough; but even at the age of 71 he had already shown that when it comes to the big occasion, he still has the ability to outwit the very best.
Mourinho, for his part, is now favourite to replace Ferguson one day — some bookmakers moved his odds to just 2-1 yesterday ahead of David Moyes and Pep Guardiola; but for anyone contemplating a bet, it may be better to keep the euros tucked away for a little longer.
It is always impossible to second guess him, but maybe if United had won against Real, then a Champions League final at Wembley would have seemed the perfect time for Ferguson to step aside.
But Tuesday’s result not only keeps the great man’s desire to win one more Champions League burning for another year, it has surely persuaded everyone he still has what it takes to do it.
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