LONDON – So, it will have to be Jose Mourinho then.
The attitude of Manchester United fans to the inevitable announcement that Pep Guardiola will join Manchester City this summer was like winning second prize in the lottery: not the worst alternative, but a long way behind the best.
While City has coveted the Catalan since he joined Bayern Munich three years ago, United has seen the world’s most wanted manager not just slip from the club’s grasp, but join those who Sir Alex Ferguson called the noisy neighbors.
As United has slowly stagnated under Louis van Gaal with Old Trafford fed a diet of tedious, almost attack-free football, City secured Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti has agreed to succeed him in Munich and the then out-of-work Jurgen Klopp joined Liverpool. Which leaves . . . well, Mourinho of the high- profile managers available when van Gaal, as he almost certainly will, moves on at the end of the season.
Do not think United supporters are organizing street parties for the probable arrival of Mourinho. They would be happy just to see the Dutchman go regardless of his successor, so fed up are they with the quality, or rather lack of it, of the football dished up for most of the past 18 months. True, United could still win the Premier League and F.A. Cup double (plus the Europa League).
How could that be boring?
If winning is the ultimate entertainment, then it would be a feast, but under van Gaal it has been mostly famine. Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman who is effectively in charge of United, is close to van Gaal and has remained loyal to him.
However, Woodward and the Glazers are aware of the discontent among the supporters while they also know that Mourinho would like nothing more than to join United.
Do they stick or twist?
Three years ago the view of the United power brokers was that the Portuguese did not prioritize the value of youth development, his sides’ football was more pragmatic than pretty and his continued disciplinary excesses — the worst of any European manager — gave him so much baggage a truck would be needed to move it.
But, United followers say with a shrug, Mourinho’s a winner, which is undeniable even if he tends to specialize in short-termism. Three years and out, for whatever reason. The difference now is that United is desperate and nobody ticks as many boxes as Mourinho.
If nothing else, the English media would rejoice at having Guardiola and Mourinho not just in the same country but the same city. This is the stuff of football writers’ prayers.
In Spain, Mourinho’s Real Madrid played second fiddle to Guardiola’s Barca Dream Team, which culminated in the former Chelsea manager claiming referees favored the Catalans and poking Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, in the eye.
If Mourinho gets the United job, he will probably say he has mellowed. He said that when “the happy one” returned to Chelsea and it was, unsurprisingly, a case of leopards and spots.
On the other hand, Guardiola is smoothness personified, the only man to look cool wearing a tie, pullover and jacket. Apart from swearing on television once, he never rose to Mourinho’s bait, preferring his players to do his talking, and how eloquently they spoke, raising the bar of excellence to a new level, though Luis Enrique’s 2016 vintage could emulate Guardiola’s all-conquering side.
For all his undoubted coaching and man-management skills, there is always a jagged edge to Mourinho and it is sad such a successful manager will be remembered as much, if not more, for his rants at match officials, his rudeness to opposing managers and finally, at Chelsea, the way he abused Dr. Eva Carneiro, whose claim for constructive dismissal is ongoing.
Ferguson was hardly a saint, but “Jose Mourinho, manager of Manchester United” is not a comfortable fit, a betrayal of the virtues of a great club, but right now he is a necessary evil on a short list of one.
And then there is Chelsea which, like United, is playing catch-up in the managerial market. It needs someone to take over from Guus Hiddink for next season and the availability of Manuel Pellegrini, who is giving way to Guardiola, is an intriguing possibility.
The Chilean was in the frame three years ago when Chelsea eventually decided to bring back Mourinho. Pellegrini’s low-key, non-confrontational style could hardly be more of a contrast to the abrasive Mourinho, and with John Terry not being offered a new contract perhaps a new, less volatile era beckons at Stamford Bridge.
More immediately, Pellegrini continues his farewell tour, which began with the 1-0 win at Sunderland on Tuesday when the traveling fans chanted his name, with a top of the table clash against Leicester on Saturday. If there could be any extra motivation for City to win the Premier League and maybe a cup or two, it is to give the popular Pellegrini a winning send off.
The Foxes go to Etihad Stadium having lost just one of their 12 league games on the road this season. Between them, the two teams have scored 90 goals, with Jamie Vardy clear at the top of the Premier League scoring chart while Sergio Aguero is in blistering form, scoring six goals in his last four games.
With key defenders Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala still injured, Pellegrini has no option than to start with Martin Demichelis, whose lack of pace could be exposed by Vardy, who has proved dangerous against some of the quickest defenders in the league, let alone a 35-year-old lacking real speed.
Victory for Leicester would leave it with a six-point advantage over City. A win for City would see it overtake Leicester on goal difference.
A draw and victories for Tottenham and Arsenal would put City and the north London rivals all on 48 points, three behind Leicester.
A tale of the unexpected looks like it’s going all the way to the wire.
Touch of irony: This week’s prize for pots and kettles goes to Hiddink for accusing Watford of “deliberately provoking Diego Costa.” Yes, the Diego Costa who has graduated with honors in the dark art of getting opponents sent off.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.