It seems Rafael Benítez cannot win.
He gets his interim Chelsea team into a European final and the headlines are dominated by the supposed availability of a manager whose side crashed out of Europe in the same week.
No one is interested now in whether Sir Alex Ferguson shakes Benítez's hand, as was the case a couple of months ago when Chelsea were knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup. The debate has moved on to what sort of a welcome will be put out should José Mourinho turn up in the blue corner next season.
"I wouldn't mind him coming back, as long as he improves his wine," Ferguson said. "Last time he was here his wine was crap. I notice he didn't actually mention Chelsea by name when he said one club in England still loves him, but that seems the most likely destination now he has opened the door. I spoke to him for a good half-hour when we played Real Madrid in the Champions League and he never at any time mentioned going to Chelsea. He said he got on well with [Real Madrid's president] Florentino Pérez, but now it seems he might be coming back here."
Though Chelsea are being universally assumed as Mourinho's preferred destination, the possibility exists that Manchester City may be interested too. They have the wealth, the ambition and the room for improvement that may appeal to a manager looking to win a third Champions League title in a third different country, and if Roberto Mancini's problem area has been progressing in Europe few potential replacements are better qualified than the man whose perceived failure at Real Madrid has involved reaching three successive semi-finals.
Chelsea need a positive result from Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon just to stay in a position to qualify for Europe's elite competition, and few can imagine Mourinho enjoying the Europa League, yet Ferguson does not see City changing managers. "I think Mancini is staying," he said. "From what I can gather they are happy with him for next season."
The only thing that currently seems certain is that Chelsea will be changing managers in summer, and the new man will find the side's playing style has evolved somewhat from the robust efficiency instilled under Mourinho. Chelsea boast three of the cleverest, most technically gifted players in England in Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, and in Ferguson's opinion that trio are there to stay and any new manager must find a way to work with them.
"Chelsea's style has changed, but those three players are by far Chelsea's best and any new manager that comes in would be silly to get rid of them," the United manager said. "New managers usually have their own philosophy but I don't see how anyone could possibly change that set-up. Don't forget that most managers come into a situation where the previous manager has been sacked, but that will not be the case with the new man at Chelsea. Benítez is interim manager and they have had a lot of time to think about his replacement."
If Ferguson admires Chelsea's three new midfielders, his tone turns reverential when discussing the old man of the side. "Frank Lampard has had a great career – he is quite phenomenal," Ferguson said. "If he ends up with the 202-goals record, I don't think there's a midfield player who will do that again. Not in the Premier League. He has that great knack that Bryan Robson had of timing when coming into the box. John Wark at Ipswich was another one who could time his runs forward. Frank arrives at just the right time and that ability has got him 200 goals. Plus, I can't remember him ever being injured. Most of the games he has missed have been because they thought he was past it or whatever. He has been incredible. We looked at him at West Ham when he was a young player and I have to say I regret not doing any business. Where else could I get 200 goals from midfield?"
Encouraged by Robin van Persie's success this season Ferguson says he is prepared to spend big again this summer if the right sort of player becomes available. "I'm not looking at any particular position, but if I can get a top player to improve the team then I will," he said. "Last season we had Chicharito [Hernández], Rooney and Welbeck but we still went for Van Persie. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. People said we were overloaded with centre-backs but we needed that because they kept getting injured. We won the league this season because we had a good strong squad with numbers and I think we should add to it."
Ferguson intends to name a strong side against Chelsea – "I promised Arsène Wenger after our game last week that he need not worry, I would pick a team to win" – while Benítez knows after last month's events that his strongest side are capable of beating United. "In England you often talk about mind games," the Chelsea manager said. "The thing is if you have a very good team you will win the mind games. I think mind games is just an excuse for when you lose."
Benítez should know. The elephant in the technical area at Old Trafford this afternoon will be the list of accusations he levelled at Ferguson when still in charge at Liverpool. Gone but not quite forgotten, the so-called facts hardly bother Ferguson any more since Benítez is no longer a front-line rival. And if Benítez still has a bee in his bonnet about the United manager being treated differently to everyone else by the authorities, these days he wears his hat that little bit tighter. "I want to concentrate on football issues," he said. "I don't think it is time to talk about that."
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald