Real Madrid have already drawn up a shortlist of candidates to replace Jose Mourinho in June, having accepted that his departure at the end of the season will suit everyone.
The Germany coach Joachim Loew and Rafael Benitez have been lined up as the most likely replacements for the former Chelsea manager.
"Jose is threatening to leave at the end of the season, it must be January," was the essence of Real Madrid's reaction yesterday to stories circulating, first in Spain last week and then in England at the weekend, that the Portuguese coach has decided to return to the Premier League in June.
Mourinho has overtly mooted leaving his present employers in the last two seasons at this stage of the campaign and the club see it as a predictable reaction to the deteriorating relationship between the manager and his senior players.
Last year, the club were panicked by the suggestion he could quit, but this time, with the latest round of exit talk coming after last week's much publicised training-ground row with the club captains Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, his departure now looks inevitable.
The club president, Florentino Perez, is preparing to stand for re-election at the end of next season and, not wanting the unpredictable Portuguese in a position to derail his chances of re-election, he is happy to lose the coach he hired at the start of last season if he can get a replacement who will win him another election.
Mourinho has at least shown the club the importance of spending as much on their manager as on their players, and they will bring in another top name, with former Liverpool and Inter Milan manager Benitez and Loew the favourites.
Neither man will be difficult to persuade. Benitez is a free agent and Loew will have come full circle with Germany since taking them to the 2008 European Championships. He could end his time in charge at this summer's tournament.
The France coach, Laurent Blanc, is close to Real's sporting director Zinedine Zidane, and could emerge as a possible third candidate. Arsene Wenger, a one-time favourite of Perez, is not being seen as a credible option.
Benitez is friendly with Perez and sources close to the president say there was even a pre-contract agreement in place last season that would have meant the Spaniard stepping in had Mourinho quit.
His close links with the club he served as an apprentice and a youth-team coach would sit well with the traditionalists who have recoiled in horror at a perceived lack of respect shown by Mourinho to their institution.
Benitez's appointment would also please fans unhappy that the club has, since Mourinho took over, looked to sign Portuguese players -- usually clients of the manager's agent, Jorge Mendes -- while overlooking Spanish talent.
Memories of Benitez's short-lived stint at Inter following Mourinho in 2010 will count against him, however, and he could also lose out because German coach Loew will be seen as 'Madrid's Pep Guardiola' -- a relatively young coach with fresh ideas and a commitment to all-out attacking football.
Real moved seven points clear of Barcelona in La Liga at the weekend but there is no great concern that Mourinho's end-of-season departure will harm efforts to win the league and progress in the Champions League. A peace pact has been agreed to allow all parties to carry on without further confrontation in what should be the season that sees them regain the domestic crown.
Mourinho has never enjoyed the close relationship with his senior players that he had at Chelsea -- the club that could yet prove to be his destination. The opportunity to finish the job at Stamford Bridge, ousting Andre Villas-Boas in the process, and in the most optimistic of scenarios winning the European Cup at Wembley in 2013, will appeal.
A possible clause in Mourinho's contract that will mean he has to pay his remaining two years' salary, worth ?20m (£16.8m), if he walks -- with Madrid having to do likewise if they sack him -- is understood not to be relevant. Clauses exist but clauses can be waived when the change is seen to suit all parties.
The likely end of the Mourinho era will be greeted with mixed emotions in Barcelona. Their supporters sang sarcastically for the current Real Madrid manager to stay during the Spanish Cup second leg last week but in the league, where they have only won four away games all season, their more realistic fans know the brutal pressure placed on them by Mourinho's ruthless Real will not be missed when its gone.
"We will fight to the end," said Guardiola after a 0-0 draw against Villarreal on Saturday came immediately after Real Madrid's 3-1 win over Real Zaragoza. "We will keep going even though we know that we have a very strong rival who will drop very few points between now and the end of the season."
Real have dropped only eight points so far this season as the prospect of Mourinho adding the league crown to titles won in England and Italy grows.
He has walked away from two of his last three jobs as a European Cup winner -- he will see completing football's first Grand Slam as a similarly suitable way to bid a club farewell.
(© Independent News Service)