James Lawton: The battle between Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho could well get ugly when Manchester United clash with Real Madrid

No two football men have ever scavenged so hard for any advantage

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If they were tenors you would have to think about La Scala. If they were men of science or medicine the Nobel Committee might want to hire that old hall in Stockholm and beef up security. If it was a mano-a-mano between great matadors the Plaza Monumental would be most appropriate.

Perfect, then, that Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson collide at the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid, nine times champions of Europe and owners of the greatest tradition in all of club football.

Or is it? The history of football is littered with huge and sometimes quite elemental showdowns and some might say that these sometime friends but always bone-deep rivals might be better fighting it out in some alley at the back of the Puerta de Sol.

Then at least there would be a little less chance of considerable ugliness spilling out into the gaze of the world at one pivotal moment or another.

Sir Alf Ramsey versus Helmut Schön at Wembley in 1966, when they told their most gifted players Sir Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer to attach themselves to each other like Siamese Twins, decided a World Cup.

A year later in Lisbon, some still claim, there was the ultimate battle of wits and emotion and sheer visceral commitment between the flamboyant idol of England's most brilliant young coach, Malcolm Allison, Helenio Herrera of Internazionale, and Jock Stein of Celtic.

Herrera, an Argentine, had a vast aura. He wore his overcoat over his shoulders and was known as the "Black Magician". He was Mourinho's precursor in the scale of his ego – and rewards – after he created catenaccio, a deadly, flexible version of the bolted door of Italian defence. But Big Jock smashed it down.

Who, though, will do the smashing?

The bookmakers, noting the re-emerging firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team-mates, have always favoured Real despite a mostly abject La Liga campaign and now they are supported by a growing theory that Mourinho has fashioned an extraordinary scenario that will confirm his status as the most cussed, divisive, cynical and, maybe also, acutely brilliant football man in the history of the modern game.

If Real do get by United and proceed, as second favourites, to win their 10th European title, it will be two things. It will be a truly monumental landmark in football, resurrecting the marvels of the original model which had Alfredo di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Ferenc Puskas at the heart of a team which some would still back against today's Barcelona. It will also give Mourinho a supreme reason to call himself the "Special One". He would be the first coach to win three European Cups with different clubs – and dramatically underpin his reputation as the one who, beyond all others, will always find a way to win the biggest prizes.

Perhaps most intriguing would be the effect it might have on the succession to the man he first challenged when guiding his Porto past United on the way to his first Champions League title in 2004. Then, Mourinho raced along the Old Trafford touchline in a frenzy of celebration. Some thought it disrespectful to an elder of the game who had won everything ever set before him but Ferguson was not among them. He recognised more than a few traces of his own kind of blood and where, anyway, might Mourinho have found his inspiration for such an abandoned embrace of his moment of triumph?

Quite possibly it was the sight, five years earlier, of Ferguson charging down the Nou Camp touchline, his arms in the air, after seeing his United put Bayern Munich to the sword with two goals in added time. It was Ferguson's first Champions League title and more than anything an astonishing act of resolution in the absence of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes.

It announced a man uniquely equipped to bring his team to a perfect state of competitive intensity, and if Mourinho can produce a similar feat at the end of a season of such tumult, could it really be that United would not be obliged to see him as Ferguson's natural-born successor?

The bookmakers are increasingly convinced that Mourinho, whatever he manages to conjure on Wednesday, in the second leg and maybe in the spring, has surrendered his pole position for whenever Ferguson decides it is time to sniff the flowers.

Yesterday one of the nation's leading odds-makers declared it would be David Moyes, so long respected by Ferguson, for whom the white smoke would rise above Old Trafford. The Everton manager was listed at 4-1, with Mourinho at fives alongside Pep Guardiola, with Nou Camp hero and Norwegian coaching neophyte Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at 12-1 and Wigan's Roberto Martinez at 14-1.

It is also the word at Old Trafford. Mourinho may have established the most extraordinary credentials for galvanising any group of players, he may have exploded cluster bombs of success at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and in Madrid broken for one season at least the domestic stranglehold of Barça, but they say the United hierarchy worry about his disruptive ways, his ceaseless, churning need to divide, conquer and then divide all over again.

The argument might be a little more plausible if Ferguson had followed a little more closely the style of his great predecessor Sir Matt Busby. No one ever had a harder ambition than the man from Lanarkshire who lost his father on a French battlefield but then no one ever hid it in more urbane and gentlemanly fashion.

It is not an attribute too often assigned to his war-like successor, as we were reminded this week with the Football Association's £12,000 fine for his recent savage criticism of a linesman. Who, indeed, would bet confidently against either Ferguson or Mourinho incurring similar disfavour when the pressure to win is at its highest?

You couldn't bet against the possibility because no two football men have ever scavenged so hard for any advantage they might just scrabble along the way. It is, of course, not only what makes them what they are – and why when they look at each other they see so much of themselves. It also makes Mourinho of Manchester United a bet you would have to consider even at rather shorter odds than 5-1.