Mourinho's men keep hopes alive
Real Madrid's routine 6-2 Primera Liga win against Malaga at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday evening forced Barcelona to wait a while longer to wrap up the 2012/13 La Liga title, while also bringing together two coaches soon to hop onto this summer's European managerial merry-go-round.
With little really at stake in a low-key end-of-season game the crowd at least saw eight goals, six in the first half, including beautifully taken strikes from Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Vitorino Atunes and Luka Modric. They also saw two red cards - for Malaga's Sergio Sanchez and Martin Demichelis.
Even with such action there was still plenty of time to consider the morning's opening up of a managerial vacancy at Manchester United. And for fans, directors, owners, agents and headhunters connected to United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Everton, Borussia Dortmund, and who knows who else, to consider the future prospects of Madrid's Jose Mourinho and Malaga's Manuel Pellegrini.
Tuesday's characteristic pre-game press conferences gave a taste of what any new employers of either man could be getting themselves in for. Mourinho spoke first at Madrid's Valdebebas training facility, aiming missiles left and right. Pepe's recent criticism was shot down as the frustration of an aging player who had lost his place to a kid. Iker Casillas was reminded of his faults as a goalkeeper. Spanish-based journalists were - once again - forcefully told not to question Mourinho's judgement. And Madrid president Florentino Perez saw his call for unity, made just 24 hours earlier, completely ignored.
After Malaga training soon afterwards, about 400 kilometres south, Pellegrini calmly and intelligently deflected questions about Mourinho, Casillas and his own club's erratic owner Abdullah Al-Thani. With the tone respectful throughout, reporters were told that Madrid was a very difficult club to manage even at the best of times, Iker remains a top goalkeeper and thoughts about his own future were currently "parked" to focus on Malaga's final few games.
As the Chilean spoke about the difficulty of the Madrid job, everyone was aware of his own unhappy season at the Bernabeu in 2009/10. That year is mostly remembered for the 0-4 Copa del Rey loss to third tier Madrid neighbours Alcorcon, and then the Champions League last 16 exit to Lyon, after Perez had spent more than €250 million on Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Kaka and Karim Benzema the previous summer.
Those cup embarrassments have tended to hide Pellegrini's more than decent La Liga results with Madrid. His side got 96 points from 38 games, pushing Josep Guardiola's Barcelona almost all the way. Not too shabby considering Cristiano Ronaldo missed a chunk of the season through injury, Raul and Guti were still causing problems in the dressing-room, and Raul Albiol and Esteban Granero were regulars in central defence and midfield. There was also the practically season-long Marca-lead media campaign which undermined his every move, and paved the way for Mourinho's arrival.
The Portuguese coach was wildly welcomed in Madrid then, seen as a winner all but guaranteed to deliver the long awaited 'decima' tenth European cup. That was then. As is now the custom at the Bernabeu, Mourinho's name was greeted with loud ringing whistles pre-game on Wednesday, while Casillas' wave to the fans brought huge cheers.
Pellegrini got a decent round of respectable applause, more than most visiting coaches, especially ex-Madrid managers, usually get. Blancos fans, like everyone else in Spain, have been impressed by the skill he has shown in guiding Malaga to this season's Champions League quarter-finals. And with the dignity he has demonstrated despite Al-Thani's withdrawal of financial support and social media outbursts.
Those achievements have also not go unnoticed in England. Pellegrini's agent Jesus Martinez reportedly lunched with Manchester City sporting director Txiki Begiristain in Madrid last week, while Roman Abramovich has also apparently made contact in recent months. The contrast between Malaga's bunch of aging cast-offs and youthful promises coming within a whisker of beating Dortmund, and Mourinho then being comprehensively out-thought over 180 minutes by Jurgen Klopp will presumably have been noted at Stamford Bridge, and elsewhere.
Both managers' situations were complicated further by Wednesday's confirmation of Alex Ferguson's impending departure, opening up maybe the most appealing managerial position in world football. Mourinho has long appeared to covet the Old Trafford job, and confirmed that impression when claiming "the best team lost" as Madrid eliminated United from this season's Champions League in March.
Up until this week Pellegrini was seen as more likely to pitch up across Manchester at Eastlands, but he has all the 'qualities' contained on United chief executive David Gill's wishlist - including experience both managing big-name players and in the Champions League. He has also shown an ability to work under pressure, from both critical journalists and non-football expert owners, which should serve him well in another big job.
Meanwhile Mourinho's behaviour appears to be growing increasingly - if that were possible - volatile. This is likely complicating his representative Jorge Mendes' efforts to secure him a return to England. Maybe Abramovich would not care less if Chelsea's manager confronts journalists, or his own team's players and fans, but the Russian is unlikely to ignore blatant insubordination - bordering on public humiliation - as meekly as Perez is currently doing. Begiristain reportedly discounted Mourinho for the City job due to PR concerns, while Bobby Charlton has previously publicly doubted whether Mourinho's fiery persona would fit with United's "values".
Any chance of an interesting tactical battle between the pair on Wednesday was mostly killed by Sanchez's 21st minute sending off. The visitors had earlier exploited Madrid's ongoing problems defending set-pieces, even with Diego Lopez in goal, when Roque Santa Cruz converted a corner unmarked at the back post. But - especially against ten - Madrid remained lethal on the break - as Ozil's superbly taken third goal, made by Ronaldo, especially showed.
Afterwards Pellegrini admitted his own defenders had some costly early mistakes, and calmly pointed out refereeing errors in both Karim Benzema's fourth goal and Demichelis' red card. He also accepted that - given the players which had been sold from under him - it was always unlikely his team could finish again in the top four this season and that "next year remains an 'unknown'."
Mourinho decided to keep a low profile this time, sending assistant Aitor Karanka out to speak. As usual the Basque coach steered away from any controversy, admitting but not judging the whistles for his boss pre-game and [laughably] claiming Pepe had been left out of the squad solely for footballing reasons.
With current Everton boss David Moyes now looking set for the United job, it could be that neither man was ever really under consideration to replace Ferguson. But the agents of both have clearly been active in recent weeks, and will likely be busier still as potential vacancies open and are filled at Eastlands, the Parc des Princes and elsewhere.
It's just a hunch, but when the merry-go-round does stop this summer it could be Pellegrini, not Mourinho, who is sitting exactly where he wants to be.