In the unusually chummy relationship that Ferguson and Mourinho have developed, there has scarcely been a harsh word exchanged since they first met in the Champions' League two years earlier, but yesterday the first cracks were in evidence. Ferguson is heading for his third year as the deposed ruler of English football and it took Mourinho to remind him of that reality.
The late-season renaissance that United have enjoyed and the narrowing of Chelsea's lead to seven points have all contributed to the gathering momentum around Ferguson's side that has masked a wider malaise. The United manager talked on Thursday about a "massive turnaround" in the title race should Chelsea fail to beat Bolton at the Reebok Stadium today, but it was Mourinho who invited the 64-year-old to take a look at the bigger picture. Mourinho said: "What I think is that Manchester United are in a difficult situation. They can lose the Premiership for a third consecutive year. For a big, big club, as they are, to lose the Premiership for three consecutive years is not an easy situation. It depends on the personality, but knowing myself as I know, three years without being champion would be very difficult for me to cope with it."
It is the truth that has scarcely been uttered as United have put together a run of nine consecutive victories and overcome, it would seem, the crisis left by early elimination from the Champions' League and the departure of Roy Keane. When Ferguson last won the Premiership in 2003, it was inconceivable that United would allow two seasons to pass without a title, let alone three, but he will get no sympathy from the man who has helped to depose him from the top of English football.
It was a different Mourinho yesterday from the man who last week declared himself more concerned about the spread of bird flu than the threat from United, this time he was eager to place the pressure on his rivals instead. He described Ferguson as an "optimistic person", a polite way of saying that he does not share the United manager's belief that Chelsea will stumble on their way to the title and a reminder to his rival that the pressure of expectation was his burden, too.
"I don't see a mind game, I see an optimistic person on the other side thinking very positive," Mourinho said. "He [Ferguson] thinks Manchester United will win their five matches and he thinks Chelsea will lose their five matches. He thinks Bolton will beat Chelsea. I see a very optimistic person and I like optimistic people. If he says 'We have no chance and we are going to lose against Sunderland' he would not be manager of Manchester United."
As the season reaches its most critical point, it remains surprising that Ferguson has not yet attacked Mourinho or his players more directly in a bid to throw them off course. Yesterday was a reminder of the dangers of taking on the Chelsea manager. Mourinho's reluctance to pick a fight with Ferguson up until now is guided, it would seem, in part by a genuine respect but also a belief that his attentions are best focused on the threat that is posed by Arsène Wenger.
The deal to sign Michael Ballack on a Bosman free transfer this summer has reached the point, Mourinho said, where the Germany captain has declared himself impressed with Chelsea's offer although he has stopped short of committing himself to the club. Mourinho said that he was still not certain of how many players would be leaving Stamford Bridge this summer but that those who left would be those who expressed a desire to go.
On Ballack, Mourinho said: "He didn't tell me he was 100 per cent sure he was coming to Chelsea. He told me he liked the way he was approached. He liked the project he would be involved in if he comes. He fancies the Premiership also, Chelsea's desire to succeed in England, possibly in Europe. I think he is thinking positively about the kind of team but he has never told me 'Next season I will be at Chelsea'. I still wait."
The departures from Chelsea are proving even more difficult to predict than the arrivals, and could come from a group of more than 10 players who have found themselves discarded or disaffected at some point this season.
Mourinho said he was "happy with the squad, the players, the age of the group". He added: "You would look for up to three [new] players to improve and always [up to] three are keen to make a move. That's very, very normal."
Race to title for big two
Bolton (A) today
Everton (H) Monday
Man Utd (H) 29 April
Blackburn (A) 2 May
Newcastle (A) 7 May
* MANCHESTER UNITED
Tottenham (A) Monday
Chelsea (A) 29 April
Middlesbrough (H) 1 May
Charlton (H) 7 May
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