Jose Mourinho can't help but mix barbs with bouquets for Manchester United
Chelsea manager is kind about Moyes but still risks his wrath over Wayne Rooney
As the great what-ifs in English football history go, the one in which Jose Mourinho, not David Moyes, is appointed as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Mancheser United is one of the most intriguing. In fact, the way that Mourinho talks about United at times, you could be forgiven for wondering how much he thinks about it, too.
In the game of the weekend on Sunday, United travel to Stamford Bridge for the first time under Moyes and the manager of Chelsea was reminiscing again about his friendship with Ferguson. He talks about these things, it should be pointed out, because he is asked about them but once he gets going he requires no further encouragement.
It was Mourinho who first mentioned Wayne Rooney's name, before declaring that he believed the player would be sold to a foreign club this summer. And it was Mourinho who explained at great length the circumstances in which he found out earlier than most that Ferguson was stepping down at United after almost 27 years in charge.
"I only knew a couple of weeks before the announcement [about Ferguson], because my friend [Ferguson] was nice to me and trusted me completely," Mourinho said. "He told me something really important before the press. He said I was one of his best friends in football so he wanted me to know before I read about it.
"I was afraid because I was sure that it would never come from me but that someone might leak and 'the boss' might think it had come from me. So I was a bit under pressure. But just that. The same way he knew from me that I was coming back to Chelsea. Just things between friends. Nothing else."
Just things between friends. The boss. This is the way Mourinho likes to talk about Ferguson but none of it gets to the nub of the question. That being the reasons Ferguson believed that he should nominate Moyes, rather than Mourinho, as his successor. The Portuguese was asked once again why he thought he had not been "the chosen one" at Old Trafford and once again he answered that it was the Chelsea job he wanted all along.
When it was put to him that the El Pais journalist Diego Torres claimed in a recent book that he, Mourinho, had cried when told that it was Moyes, not him, who had got the United job, his response was unequivocal but light-hearted. "I think the person who writes the book shouldn't write books – he should write books for kids, imagination."
This is the Mourinho of 2014, for now at least. Trying to deflect the worst criticism with a joke and still ostensibly unburdened with the feuds that plagued him the first time around. In his initial spell at Chelsea, Mourinho fed off his anger and dissatisfaction, constantly. This time around, he is much more relaxed. He started the press conference by seeking out the ITV reporter Rags Martel, who has recently been given the all-clear from thyroid cancer, and shook his hand.
But Mourinho still cannot help himself, and the remarks about Rooney will be felt keenly within Old Trafford. He does nothing without a reason. He throws petals in Ferguson's path and is polite and positive about Moyes but one thing has not changed: Mourinho wants to sign Rooney. And while he believes he still has a chance of signing him these remarks will not cease.
He also picks his fights. Asked whether United would be seventh in the Premier League were he in charge, Mourinho said it was "impossible to judge or analyse". Asked to balance the merits of the two squads he said it was "an impossible judgement, there is no 'if'". Yet the suggestion that United's squad is below strength was one issue that he felt strongly about.
"United have the weakest squad of this era? I don't know," Mourinho said. "[If that is the case] they must show me their garbage box. If United have an average squad – wow.
"But do you believe they are not working on transfers? I believe they are working on that. I believe they have the targets clearly identified. I believe that, instead of bringing players in now, something to shut people up, they would rather wait a little bit longer to bring in exactly what they want.
"Sooner or later – sooner is now, later is in the summer – they will bring exactly the players David wants and players who will be important in the team. When a giant is sleeping, the giant is never sleeping. Be careful. Be careful.
"If you ask my opinion, I keep thinking that United will be [in the top four at the end of the season]. But if they don't, every player knows it's an occasional situation. It's not a situation that will last forever. It's not a situation where a player would think 'If I go to United, for two or three or four years, I won't play Champions League football'. It's not the case."
What is not in doubt is that the massive investment in Chelsea's squad in recent years overseen by Michael Emenalo and Roman Abramovich's various managers has given the club a much surer footing going into the summer. From the latest signing, Nemanja Matic, who is in the squad for tomorrow, to André Schürrle, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Cesar Azpilicueta and Wallace, among others, the process of renewal is better established than at United.
This summer, the battle-lines for the likes of United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal are already drawn. There will be fierce competition for Ross Barkley, Rooney and Luke Shaw, if indeed those players are allowed to leave their clubs. The homegrown, elite level English player is at a premium in the modern era of squad restrictions. Not least for Chelsea.
At the corresponding fixture at Old Trafford in August, Mourinho settled for a 0-0 draw in the second half on the basis that a win over United at Stamford Bridge would put the balance of points in his own favour, four to one. Win tomorrow – he is without the injured Branislav Ivanovic, although Frank Lampard returns to the squad – and the lead over United is 12 points.
"I feel my team is in a good moment, playing with some stability," he said. "The team is quite confident with the ball. Normally we are dominant and have possession of the game. It's an evolution in a certain direction. If the game was at Old Trafford now, I'd go in a different way. But that was the first away game of the season, at Old Trafford and important not to lose. In the end, a point was not a bad point. It's always a point."
At Old Trafford in August, Mourinho faced a United that was still in the post-Ferguson glow, only three months on from title No 20 and yet to confront the disappointment of the summer transfer window. It is a different club that comes to Stamford Bridge tomorrow and this is a game that the Chelsea manager expects his team to win.
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