Jose Mourinho naturally couldn’t resist it – but then Zinedine Zidane couldn’t completely reject it.
When the predictable subject of Gareth Bale’s future came up, Mourinho offered up a bit of pantomime, and added what the Real Madrid manager would have called “gasoline” to the situation.
It says a lot about the actual stakes of the Super Cup that this was the primary issue ahead of notionally prestige match between two of Europe’s premier clubs.
But then you remember that for all the other angles brought up beyond Bale – Mourinho’s history with Real, Mourinho’s history with Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, Mourinho’s history with Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo’s history with Manchester United, the two clubs’ general history of tension in the transfer market – it’s still just a friendly. And that means that the lack of spike or aggression from the Bernabeu boss about the story actually only added more gasoline.
In saying so little and looking to generally talk around the issue by resorting to banal generalities about Bale, Zidane actually did an awful lot for the strength of this saga.
Mourinho himself didn’t say anything that explicit about his interest in the player, and a very cold reading of the mere words might allow the inference that he doesn’t think a transfer could actually happen, but then very little about any public Mourinho utterance is intended to be read cold. There is almost always an edge, always a game beyond the game, and so it was with this.
Many close to United believe that, by stating that Bale starting would finish the story, the Portuguese was not in any way suggesting it should then be played down but was instead looking to play on the forward’s mind. Everything he said was actually intended for Bale himself.
Given that Mourinho already got so conspicuously filmed telling the player he would go for him if he would just speak up, and that United know that Bale does want to fight for his place at Madrid, a very fair reading is that the Portuguese wants to plant the seed that he is not that wanted; that it might be understandable to look elsewhere.
It would be all the more understandable a tactic from the United boss since it is known that the only way any move actually happens is if Bale himself finally decide to leave.
Whatever the truth of it all, the fact is that it has added a necessary frisson to events on the actual pitch, since Mourinho has ensured there is genuine intrigue about Real’s starting XI.
United’s XI is meanwhile interesting in its own very different way. What formation will the Europa League winners play? Will he persist with four at the back, or move to the three that has been mooted for most of the summer, while allowing Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford to see how much damage they can do against a side as good as the European champions?
It has similarly been suggested around Old Trafford that if they cannot get Bale or Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic, they will turn to trying to sign a player to work in the left wing-back role to facilitate this switch. What Mourinho tries then will be telling, since this really is a game for experimentation rather than any true tension, much as some media tried to manufacture it beforehand.
Ramos was for example asked about whether he felt in any way indebted to Mourinho for moving him to centre-back, only to completely shut down any idea he should be grateful, but it was still all quite mild.
Mourinho himself shut down the idea there is residual bad blood from his three years at the Bernabeu between 2010 and 2013, but couldn’t naturally couldn’t resist a bit of self-aggrandisement when asked about the difference between his Real and this one.
Well the basic difference is when I arrived they weren’t even head of the group, it was a team that in spite of all their history they couldn’t get beyond the quarter-final, their most important players had never played in the Champions League semi-finals. When I left it was a team that had played three consecutive Champions League semis, they had been Spanish champions, they had won games at home as well as abroad. There were small and big differences.
“I left and it was difficult for the others to say many good things about me. I’ve never spoken too much or cried or asked for anything I didn’t think I deserved. I left feeling quite at ease and feeling that I had nothing left to give. I have never given so much of myself. I left with peace of mind, I left without want to take out the dirty linen.
“Quite frankly, I left with that peace of mind, I left to start a new life and that’s it. I’ve never been very concerned about this because my main concern is to give everything where I am working. I can truly say that I gave more to Real Madrid any club than I ever have before.”