Jose Mourinho sat down with Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo last Wednesday afternoon in a Salford hotel where Real Madrid were staying. Manchester United use the same hotel before home games, all the players in one place, tucked up in bed or attached to their electronic consoles and not causing mischief.
The mood was relaxed and convivial: all three like and respect each other, a triumvirate of workaholics who've excelled at the highest level in their profession. They have a mutual connection in the agent Jorge Mendes too. They talked football — who is happy, who is not, who is playing well, who is greedy … whose agent is greedy.
Mourinho knows the hotel and adjacent Manchester well. It may be his home in the future, whether he manages Red or Blue. He'll have looked for hints about Sir Alex Ferguson's plans.
Real Madrid, Barcelona and United are, by a distance, the three biggest football clubs in the world. Mourinho has worked at the other two and Barcelona are unlikely to have him back in the future because of his Madrid connections. They also rejected him in 2008 in favour of Pep Guardiola and he's now public enemy number one among Barca fans. So that leaves United as the job he'd love to have in the future.
Guardiola would love it too, the chance to manage at a huge, stable, club where longevity is admired and afforded. There's not a chance Sir Alex Ferguson would have kept his position at the Camp Nou or Bernabeu for so long. The problem is, neither Guardiola nor Mourinho know Ferguson's intentions. He turns 71 next month and it's business as usual for him — though watching your wife unveil a statue of you can hardly be described as normal.
An embattled Mourinho will be thinking about his future. He's at a club he's described as the biggest in the world, but he's fighting battles on every front and often seems ill at ease with the role. His side didn't win in Manchester and they lost again at the weekend. That's 13 league points dropped in 13 games. Barca have dropped just two — ironically to Mourinho's team.
Madrid are third in the Primera Liga. Being 11 points behind the Catalans against whom your club's success is measured is bad enough. Being eight behind neighbours Atletico, who have been outstanding all season, is even worse.
Atletico's quality will be tested in the next few weeks with games against Madrid and Barcelona away. First up is the Madrid derby on Saturday. Defeat for Mourinho to a side who've won 11 and drawn one of their 13 games so far will intensify pressure on his position, though Atletico are routine losers in the derby. You sense that Diego Simeone's ruthlessly organised side have far more about them than recent Atleti teams though.
Few storms are weathered by Madrid coaches because there's always someone with a brighter idea of who will do a better job. The concepts of the mutual virtues of longevity and stability are alien to a culture of quick fixes.
After the draw at City, Mourinho made the point that Mancini was lucky because despite failing in Europe, he's likely to keep his job. The inference was clear, there would be no such grace at Madrid, a club where the managerial fuse burns quickly, a club who have worked through 25 coaches since Sir Alex Ferguson took charge at Old Trafford 26 years ago, a club who sacked their hugely popular coach Vicente Del Bosque after he'd won them the European Cup.
After last weekend's defeat to a Real Betis side who had been hammered 5-1 in the Seville derby, Mourinho was again pointing fingers. His team may have dominated possession, but they looked short of ideas and inspiration.
Novice Barca coach Tito Vilanova, he of 12 wins and a draw from 13 leagues games, may claim otherwise, but Madrid have all but lost the league in November. They have lost five times in all competitions already this season, more than the whole of last season. The gap between them and Barcelona is widening, not shrinking. If it's 11 points after 13 games, what will it be after 38?
Mourinho's list of targets has been extensive. Referees, groundsmen, the media, the people who decide the fixtures, his own fans, his own players, the players he did sign and the players he didn't. Then there are the youth players at his own club, their coach. The list is long. He'd find a conspiracy in an empty room.
He gets away with moaning when Madrid are winning, he doesn't when they're not, yet he doesn't seem particularly bothered by criticism. Such is his reputation and record, he'll get another top level job easily. Which is what he would have had half an eye on last week in his hotel on the banks of the swollen River Irwell.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.