Real Madrid's manager knew endless talk about an Old Trafford homecoming could prove to be his superman's kryptonite
At one point during his press conference ahead of what is, for both Manchester United and Real Madrid, the biggest match of the season to date, José Mourinho appeared to be on the verge not just of running out of things to say, but of actually falling asleep. Glazed, monosyllabic, loungingly shell-suited, Mourinho wore the aggrieved expression of a man dragged from his bed to argue with the milkman. "We want to play the match," he objected at one point, practically looking at his watch. "It's a pity this match is not now and we have to wait for tomorrow."
On his return to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League three years ago, Mourinho had appeared almost alarmingly charming, spending his press conference munching custard creams and waving at old friends. Here he was ruthlessly free of bonhomie, a man very pointedly not enjoying himself, and no doubt with a clear design in mind.
Mourinho has spoken in the past about how for him a match begins not with kick-off but with these staged preliminaries, the first opportunity to start hurling his grappling hooks into the hull of the opposition flotilla. And so Old Trafford was treated to a masterclass in surliness from the Portuguese's first entrance into a crammed press room.
Perhaps one of the major reasons for this came in Mourinho's first question about – him again – Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been the object of warm words from Sir Alex Ferguson earlier in the day. "I prefer he speaks honestly about Cristiano," Mourinho drawled back, wearing the expression of a man who would prefer pretty much anything else. "The reception he will get from the crowd will be very well deserved. I'm aware how well he did and what an impact he had at the club."
And this surely was the key, albeit it is something of a default setting now, to Mourinho's studied surliness. If ever a football match was all about Ronaldo – and every match involving Ronaldo is to some degree all about Ronaldo – then this is it. Not just in terms of the broader narrative of the returning favourite, but simply because he remains a footballing species above any other player on show, even a midfield containing Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric and the wonderfully subtle Mesut Ozil, presented as a footnote to Ronaldo's own gymnastic attacking thrust.
Hence perhaps his manager's chilliness here and also Ronaldo's own unexpected absence from the pre-match press conference plinth. The media had been promised an appearance at Old Trafford, but instead he has been cosseted away behind the skirts of his manager in Manchester, even ushered during open training to the far side of the Etihad Stadium, away from the craning banks of photographers (not that there was much to see beyond the spectacle of Ronaldo trotting about in an usually long blue hat).
There are perhaps sound tactical reasons to keep Ronaldo at a distance. He is, right now, perhaps the best and most incisive footballer in the world and the only player on either side capable of deciding this tie on his own in the first five minutes on Tuesday night. Little wonder his manager is wary, not so much of the opposition as of the opposition's secret weapon, the disarming familial kryptonite of Old Trafford and the potentially disorientating effect of what is undoubtedly a kind of homecoming.
Ronaldo, of course, operates under his own set of rules, and not only in terms of his relationship to such trivial matters as gravity and technical mastery of a football. Most former players who had successfully agitated for a move away might expect some degree of hostility on their return. Not so Ronaldo, kingpin of United's last Champions League-winning team and a player of such regal sporting gravity he can expect a genuinely warm reception at Old Trafford.
If there is perhaps something a little too cosy about all this, Mourinho seemed at pains to sweep away the cobwebs of chumminess. Pressed for some sugar on his own publicly affectionate relationship with Ferguson, Mourinho was not playing that game either. "Sir Alex is unique," came the broad, dead bat. "I don't have any words that can add to what everybody thinks about him."
And by this stage Mourinho had almost become a parody of unsmiling sullenness. What might tip the balance in the favour of Real, an engaging TV anchor lady asked. "I've no idea," came the drawled, Brando-ish reply. Yeah: whatever. "English football is English football. It will be always English football," Mourinho muttered at some length. Later he was even more illuminating: "Spanish football is also Spanish football."
Mourinho is no doubt right to play down the preliminaries on this occasion. It is occasionally suggested that leaving United can only ever be a bad career move, but this is clearly not that case for the truly stellar talent. If Ronaldo was irresistible at United, at Real he has become relentless, a footballing terminator, scorer of 185 goals in 183 games and a player who, but for the existence among his contemporaries of Lionel Messi, would already be making his own convincing claims on footballing ultimacy.
At his best when entirely ruthless, seeking out of the weakness in an opposition and mercilessly exploiting it, Ronaldo remains for all his elusiveness pre-match the key to which of these teams progresses to the Champions League quarter-finals and which finds its season subsiding into a lengthy domestic endgame. Mourinho, furiously soft-pedalling, may have played this one just right.