With Premier League title hopes all but gone, Portuguese must focus on Europe as he bids to become first manager to win Champions League with three different clubs and cementing irrefutable claim to greatness
Winning Champions League title Jose Mourinho's best chance to cement legacy at Manchester United
There was a smile on Jose Mourinho’s face. The delivery was light-hearted.
Equally, the words lent themselves to suggestions that the Manchester United manager, a man who invariably has an agenda and who had complained about Manchester City over-celebrating, was up to his old tricks again.
Romelu Lukaku’s lack of celebration for his goal at West Bromwich Albion, his manager suggested, could be a reflection of his own reaction. Mourinho remained slumped in his seat.
It was a sign of maturity, he argued.
Or perhaps he simply did not think he had anything to celebrate.
Winning at West Brom was a decent result, but scarcely an all-time high for a man with Mourinho’s CV. Nor is being 11 points behind Manchester City. The sense Mourinho has been in a sullen mood was amplified after last Sunday’s derby defeat.
Even fairly basic amateur psychology would intimate he has been downbeat out of a recognition that ambitions are likely to go unrealised: probably this season, possibly in his time at Old Trafford, given that he tends to be gone after three years.
The news that City want Pep Guardiola to extend his stay, and the possibility that he is forging a team to dominate for years, may only further depress Mourinho.
It has long felt that managing United was his ultimate objective, the brash outsider taking charge at the establishment club to allow him to position himself as a managerial godfather in the mould of Alex Ferguson.
Now United are on course for their highest finish since Ferguson retired. Ander Herrera argued that their points total would put them top in many seasons, but this is not another year.
Instead the eventual verdict may be that, for the fifth successive campaign, United have not really mounted a title challenge.
There are signs of progress. United lifted two trophies last season. A serial silverware-gatherer like Mourinho may well win another: perhaps retaining the League Cup which, in an indication of the Portuguese’s wider dissatisfaction, he suggested scrapping.
He is building the best United side since Ferguson, but that is not saying much and his blueprint is altogether less ambitious than Guardiola’s.
For one long touted as the best manager of all time, being the second best in the England’s third-biggest city may be depressing.
If Mourinho, with his impeccable record of winning the title in his second season everywhere, imagined himself as becoming the first manager since Ferguson to make United champions, he was not alone.
But if City sustain their excellence, membership of a select club, which includes only Ernest Mangnall, Matt Busby and Ferguson, may not beckon.
Which leaves Mourinho at a crossroads.
He is a prisoner of his past, judged by the context that shows other superstar managers also trailing in Guardiola’s wake.
But he is also judged by the standards he set between 2002 and 2012, a decade when he won two Uefa Champions Leagues and seven league titles from nine attempts. He never finished lower than second, and dethroned a Barcelona team deemed among the greatest ever to recapture the Primera Liga.
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There is a theory that Mourinho is now in decline. He has achievements since then, winning the Europa League with United and the Premier League, albeit in a less than vintage season, with Chelsea, but not defining ones.
He has experienced ignominy: the dismissal at Stamford Bridge when languishing in 16th after the worst run of his career and finishing 24 points behind his old club last season.
There is one way to transforming the narrative of a manager whose glory days are behind him. It would also surely realise another of Mourinho’s ambitions: becoming the first manager to win the Champions League with three different clubs and cementing an irrefutable claim to greatness.
Perhaps knockout football will suit a habitual winner of leagues better. Perhaps the winner of Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid will draw City and a path will open up for United.
But if not, then Mourinho might not be celebrating much at all.