Sir Alex Ferguson could have been forgiven for saving a bottle of his favourite claret for the day that his fiercest adversary left the arena. Jose Mourinho was the man who, in one homily, cast his own team as "the good swimmer" and Sir Alex's as "the fellow who wants to chase me." The latter was "so enthusiastic chasing me – gasp, gasp, gasp – but he has a heart attack. When he reaches the beach he dies." It was the Portuguese fable of morrernapraia – dying on the beach – Mourinho declared.
But there was no sense of satisfaction, no crossed fingers, from the older man as he reflected on the Portuguese's departure yesterday and articulated a sense of loss. "He's been fantastic, an unparalleled success and it's a test for whoever replaces him," Sir Alex said. "I enjoyed the competition with him. He was something fresh and new to our game." There was also the small matter of "what I'll do with my wine now," he added. (Mourinho famously offered Sir Alex something undrinkable at Stamford Bridge three years ago, before attempting to make amends with a £200 bottle of Portuguese red after their sides' 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last November.) There is no doubt that Sir Alex's words are genuine. Despite the two years of misery Mourinho inflicted on him from 2004, he saw something of himself in the Portuguese – the "young gunslinger who has come to town to challenge the old sheriff," as he liked to cast the two of them – and felt an affinity for him which were a foil to his thoughts about Arsène Wenger.
But the United manager's reluctance to theorise on the effects of Mourinho departure – "no more on that, I won't have it," he insisted, with an imperious wave of his arm – might have something to do with the fact that he knows Chelsea will have enough motivation to make life difficult tomorrow.
That, and the fact that Sir Alex has problems of his own to dwell on. Though Wayne Rooney will start tomorrow, four 1-0 wins in a row and 13 games without scoring more than once hardly represents the finished article for Ferguson, whose assessment of their progress could hardly have been more measured. "We are gradually getting towards something like our better form," he said.
United, who will still be missing both Owen Hargreaves and Gary Neville, simply haven't had enough of the new players fit at the same time for their manager to work out how best they might blend together. "I don't know [what the best blend might be]," Sir Alex said. "I don't have any evidence at the moment."
He might weigh up whether to bring back Carlos Tevez, probably in place of Nani, as he looks for a cutting edge. But the answer to the goal drought – five all season – rests with a player who has been with him all along. The rejuvenated Louis Saha demonstrated in his spectacular second half transformation of the club's fortunes against Sunderland that he offers a different dimension to the refined elegance of Rooney and Ronaldo – if he is fit.
For Chelsea, it seems Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard will still be out, though Sir Alex will believe that when he sees it. "We [all] try to contain information – though not purposely of course," he said, with a grin. "Maybe we're just a wee bit better at that than the others." It was a line of banter his old sparring partner would probably have appreciated.
* Merseyside Police said they are investigating a complaint by an Everton fan that the United winger Ronaldo stamped on his arm when he was attempting to retrieve the ball during the game at Goodison Park last Saturday.
Saying goodbye: How Jose Mourinho's managerial counterparts greeted his departure
"Apart from not fancying me in a fight, charisma, talent... he is a very, very good man-manager and a very successful one in terms of the trophies he has won for Chelsea. From my point of view, I hope there is no clause in his contract which says he cannot work in this country because I will be sad to see him leave the Premier League." - Sam Allardyce, of Newcastle. Last week Mourinho said he would not relish going toe-to-toe with his former Bolton counterpart
"At the top level now and certainly when you are at the bigger clubs, you have to manage upwards as well as downwards. Just saying, 'I get results and I can do as I like' doesn't work now. A lot of people want to pick the team now and a lot of people have influence. So not only has the manager got to get results on a Saturday he has also got to manage the people with expectations above him who are employing him. Just saying, 'I want nothing to do with that' is not good enough and puts them off. We have seen [Fabio] Capello leave Real Madrid after winning the title so results on the field are not the be all and end all at the top of the game any more. There are a lot of factors they have to deal with. That makes the job even more difficult than it has ever been." - Lawrie Sanchez, Fulham
"It has come brutally, but that is always the case, because no one says they will sack you in 30 days. Many times it is expected because you haven't done well for a long period. In this case it is brutal and surprising, and was more down to internal differences than bad results. Internal differences are always difficult to assess from outside. Maybe you have heard rumours about it, but you think, 'Is it true? Is it because Mourinho doesn't agree with the direction [he received from the club's hierarchy], is it because the direction does not agree with Mourinho?' It is difficult to judge." - Arsène Wenger, Arsenal
"I am surprised he has gone, and a little disappointed because he has been good for the game. But maybe now it will allow others to win some trophies. He has been very successful. But there must have been some problems behind the scenes for it to happen because he surely wasn't being judged on the results. We will all be sad to see him go, but he will not be far from football in the future. I found him a really good guy – he always had a word and a chat." - David Moyes, EvertonReuse content