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These are testing times for Jose Mourinho. A seven-point lead in La Liga, a stuttering main adversary whose away form seems set to hand the title to Real Madrid for the first time since 2008, and a comfortable Champions League last-16 tie against CSKA should all combine to put a smile on the face of the Portuguese coach. But Mourinho has barely smiled since he arrived in Madrid with a mandate from Real president Florentino Perez to knock his second Galacticos project into shape while knocking Barcelona from the summit of domestic and European competition.
Last season, the source of Mourinho's malcontent was a single figure, Jorge Valdano, whom Perez eventually disposed of to smooth his coach's ruffled feathers. With full power over all aspects of the club's affairs bestowed on him, Mourinho might have expected an easier ride this year. Poking Tito Vilanova in the eye during the Supercup melee was not a grand start to the season on the diplomacy front, but Mourinho has recently been made painfully aware that he is not the only strutting peacock in his own park. Senior players have revolted against his tactics, leading to a morose Mourinho picking a side for the match against Athletic Bilbao that could have been selected by a Marca fans' survey -- even crowd favorite Esteban Granero was invited to dust off his boots. Around the same time, a training ground bust-up with Sergio Ramos provided a revealing insight into how Mourinho's players view the coach. On being blamed by his boss for not picking up Carles Puyol and tracking Gerard Pique for Barcelona's first goal at the Bernabeu, Ramos noted icily, "Sometimes during a match you have to make positional changes. You don't know because you were never a player."
To make matters worse, the incident was apparently leaked by Iker Casillas, who had already incurred Mourinho's wrath by offering an olive branch to Barcelona. Pictures of the two club captains presenting Mourinho with a birthday cake the same week were instructive; Ramos' face, in particular, spoke volumes.
So inevitably, the rumor abounds that Mourinho will pick up his ball and stalk from the Bernabeu this summer, regardless of whether he wins the league, the Champions League, or both. He has made no secret of his desire to return to the Premier League, but a triumphant second spell at Stamford Bridge is extremely unlikely while Roman Abramovich controls the purse strings. The city of Barcelona would riot in the streets if Sandro Rosell even thought about it, Sir Alex Ferguson said recently he has another three years left in him at least, and Mourinho has already made it quite clear he will not coach the likes of Malaga. So with his prickly persona and an astronomical pay packet -- some 13.5 million euros at Real -- who would want him?
The most obvious destination for the world's most controversial coach would be the world's richest and brashest club. City's paymasters, the Abu Dhabi United Group, proved in their dealings with Mark Hughes, and to an extent with Carlos Tevez, that they have little time for niceties in their quest for instant gratification. Roberto Mancini may win the Premier League this season, but if Mourinho becomes available, there is little doubt that City would be willing to match his demands. Mancini's handling of the Tevez affair and his testy relationship with some of his players aside, the Italian's admission during the week that he had not taken the Everton match entirely seriously will not have been met with indifference by Sheikh Mansour.
Talk in Madrid this week has been of a potential swap deal between Arsenal and Real Madrid, with both clubs apparently doubting their leaders. It would certainly be an interesting experiment, perhaps worthy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Arsene Wenger -- who has the air of a man who cuts coupons out of newspapers before going to the supermarket -- given an unlimited budget, and Mourinho, who has never been exactly shy with his chairmen's cash, given the keys to the Shenley training ground and told to do what he can with the kids.
There are few more worn jibes in armchair football-watching circles than: "Anybody could coach that lot and win." However, with the amount of money in the game making the playing field anything but level, it no longer has an entirely hollow ring to it. What would embellish Mourinho's reputation as one of the finest coaches the game has ever seen would be restoring a fallen giant to former glories. Tottenham is not exactly destitute, being one of the biggest spenders in the short history of the Premier League, and may be in the market for another manager this summer if Harry Redknapp, as expected, takes the England job. Newcastle has not enjoyed a great deal of success over the last half-century or so, a brief dalliance with silverware under Kevin Keegan aside. It is doubtful that Mike Ashley could meet his salary, but Mourinho would not dismiss the idea out of hand; a long-time assistant to and admirer of Bobby Robson, Mourinho was offered the assistant's job under the former Porto and Barcelona coach, with a view to taking over when the great man retired. He declined at that time. Mourinho lasts only a few seasons at each club, so building a legacy like Ferguson or Wenger is unlikely to happen. Taking his mentor's legacy and adding a bit of spit and polish might be a happy compromise.
If there is one piece of unfinished business on Mourinho's CV, it is his brief encounter with Benfica. Promoted from assistant to first-team coach, Mourinho lasted just nine games before his contract demands saw him ushered from the Estadio da Luz. Benfica has won only two Portuguese league titles and a Portuguese cup in almost two decades, and a Porto-style renaissance would be an interesting challenge for any coach, but Mourinho is far from being "any coach" in his own mind, and will probably not return to his native country until he takes charge of the national team.
Huge budget? Check. A handful of players with plenty of attitude? Check. Hasn't won the Champions League for a decade so? Check. An institutional structure and a status as the national club, with expectations to match? Check. A glut of celebrity fans, including the pope? Check. Out of the frying pan into the fire, perhaps, but stranger things have happened. And the irony of Mourinho usurping Jupp Heynckes again, as he did at Benfica, would not be lost.