Jim White

Laudrup could replace England-bound Mourinho

What a game that was midweek, 90 minutes of soaring tension that gripped you round the throat and refused to yield, a breath-taking display of relentless energy and skill. But enough of Oxford United against Fleetwood.

At the Bernabeu too there was apparently quite a game. And Manchester United were deemed to have had the better of the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie. Their young players like Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and David De Gea demonstrated the extent of their talent and temperament. Meanwhile Cristiano Ronaldo showed that he has the supra-natural ability to escape from every attempt to shackle him; no matter the planning that goes in to keeping him quiet, never mind how many players you try to surround him with, he will find a way to escape. Even if it involves flying.

And for that reason alone, any United fan encouraged by Wednesday’s epic performance to start planning for the quarter-final would be cautioned to wait for the game at Old Trafford. The aggregate score remains tied: just one intervention from the Portuguese is all that is required.

But the most telling moment of the week came before the game had kicked off. Jose Mourinho was asked in his pre-match press conference whether the description by the Madrid-mouthpiece Marca newspaper of Wayne Rooney as a hooligan was fair. Mourinho brushed it off with a sarcastic, “well, I’ve been called worse by them."

It signalled that what has been speculated at for some time is true: it is over for Mourinho at Madrid. If even the local propaganda sheet has fallen out with him, his tenure at the world’s most intensely scrutinised club is finished, done. He admits as much.

He has said he wants to return to England, where he claims he had a blissful, stress-free time with the press. It was a golden era, he insists. Which may have come as a bit of surprise to the several reporters with whom he had vociferous run ins.

If he is to return, however, it will surely only be to one of three places: Chelsea, City or United. He is not going to come back to take over from Brian McDermott at Reading.

For it to be Stamford Bridge would take an almighty swallow of pride from the owner. But how it would cheer up the fans, 1000 of whom travelled to Prague last night largely with the intention, it seems, of once more publicly making it clear that they have no faith in Roman Abramovich’s choice of current manager.

If the Russian were remotely interested in popularity, it would be the perfect way to solve his temporary rift with his customers. Mourinho back where he belongs: you could almost hear the sigh of relief from Frank Lampard’s agent whistling up the Fulham Road.

Of course it might be City, given that Roberto Mancini has effectively now only one possibility remaining open to him of claiming silverware this year. And with the belligerent Neil Warnock his opponent this weekend, even further progress in the FA Cup cannot be reckoned a certainty.

But though Mancini is not universally popular with his players, he is largely admired by City’s supporters. And the Abu Dhabi ownership of the club is loathe to do anything which may give the appearance of being driven by panic. For them, patience remains a virtue. It would be quite unlike the way they operate if Mancini were not allowed to persevere beyond this season.

As for United, well, maybe, possibly, you never know. There have been rumours gathering pace – some of them emanating from the most eminent of sources – that Sir Alex Ferguson may well be figuring this season is his last hurrah. Win the title, add a cup or two, and it could be the most glittering way to depart the scene. Though whether the hierarchy at Old Trafford would wish to see him replaced by a figure as corrosive to internal politics as Mourinho is another matter.

Already Bobby Charlton has publicly intimated Mourinho may be a little too political for red tastes. After all, he has fallen out with the directors at virtually every club he has managed. And at United they have done without internal feuding for the last quarter century. Sure, he may be about the only personality in the game substantial enough to take over from Ferguson, but to employ him would be like chucking an Alka Seltzer tablet into the calm waters of Old Trafford.

But while it may not be clear where the current boss is heading, I have a strong hunch who Madrid have ear-marked to take over once Mourinho heads north. If you have a spare bob or two, put it here: on Michael Laudrup being announced the next king of the Bernabeu.

Sure, he may not have increased his Champions League experience at Swansea. But he has proven in every other way to be a superb manager – not least in his canny exploitation of the Spanish transfer market.

A still young former playing hero for the club, with brilliant language skills, a calm, dignified demeanour and a sense of humour and proportion: in every way, this could be what Madrid have been looking for. He could be their Pep Guardiola.