PAUL Pogba won the battle of wills when Manchester United sacked Jose Mourinho last December.
But the Portuguese could yet end up with the ultimate revenge – by denying Pogba his “dream move” to Real Madrid.
Pogba is desperate to swap United red for Real white and a huge money transfer to the Bernabeu.
Real coach Zinedine Zidane is equally keen to land his fellow Frenchman, even though it could cost £150m-plus before Pogba’s wages and super-agent Mino Raiola’s fees are added to the pot.
Real president Perez and his right-hand man, director general Jose Angel Sanchez, agree with Zidane that Pogba is the right choice to signal the club’s next stage.
Yet Madrid have yet to make a formal move, despite two months of fairly public agitation by the midfielder.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed after United’s shoot-out win over AC Milan in Cardiff he had “no doubt” Pogba would stay at Old Trafford.
And with rising doubts over whether Zidane – bruised by the fall-out of his bitter spat with Gareth Bale – will last until Christmas in his second stint at the Real helm, the ghost of Mourinho is emerging rapidly over Pogba’s shoulder.
POGS OF WAR
Despite leaving Madrid after a dressing room uprising in 2013 – an insurrection with parallels to his last days at Old Trafford – Mourinho remains close to Perez.
Indeed, Perez has never hidden his frustrations at having to let Mourinho leave after the “Special One” fell out not only with Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos but also Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mourinho and his agent Jorge Mendes have remained on friendly terms with Perez throughout the past six years.
Perez was considering re-hiring the unattached Mourinho when he sacked Santiago Solariafter barely four months in the job in March, only for Zidane to make himself available for a swift return to the job he had quit the previous summer.
It is increasingly rumoured that Mourinho has an unofficial agreement with Perez that he will be prepared to take over if there is a need for an emergency replacement for Zidane.
Now, with Zidane under early pressure following a desperate pre-season, which plumbed unprecedented depths with that 7-3 thumping by neighbours and rivals Atletico, Mourinho and his entourage are ready to pounce.
IN THE POGHOUSE
Mourinho has made his animosity towards Pogba crystal clear ever since his departure from Old Trafford, making the Frenchman the scapegoat for his failure.
Perez is more than aware of that view, even though he was minded to give Zidane what he wanted.
But last week’s u-turn over Bale’s move to China – which left the Welshman and Zidane equally exasperated – has raised the stakes further.
Mourinho’s comments in last week’s Sky interview, in which he insisted he had been resisting “the impulse of wanting to work” because he was “waiting for the right opportunity”, sounded like those of a man who believes the big prize could soon fall into his lap.
And if Mourinho is being lined up for Zidane’s job, it makes no sense at all for Madrid to commit a large fortune to hire a player who will definitely not be wanted by the Portuguese.
Mourinho would, it seems have no problem in reintegrating Bale, while any issues between him and Eden Hazard have been eased by the passage of time.
Even Ramos, who told Perez that he did not want to play under Mourinho again, has been marginalised.
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The Spanish defender was blamed for last season’s debacle, especially the Champions League exit at the hands of Ajax which he missed through suspension having boasted about getting deliberately booked.
But preventing Pogba from getting his way would, you suspect, bring even more satisfaction to Mourinho than a triumphant return to the Bernabeu hot seat.
Revenge, it seems, may be best served cold.