An available, high profile manager with a gilded CV casting a large shadow over a former colleague under mounting pressure at Old Trafford. Sound familiar?

It was not too long ago that found himself in the position Zinedine Zidane now occupies. For months during his final season in charge of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal could barely move without hearing Mourinho’s name being linked with his job in some form or other. The rumour mill began around Christmas 2015, at which point Van Gaal was in the midst of an eight game winless streak, and by mid-February it was clear the persistent Mourinho talk was getting to the Dutchman.

After a dismal 2-1 defeat at Sunderland, Van Gaal spoke about how football was “not always an honest world” at the same time as clinging to the misguided belief that the Mourinho stories were the work of a Machiavellian media given the apparent reassurances he had received internally that the club were happy with him.

Van Gaal was eventually sacked less than 48 hours after winning the FA Cup in May, with Mourinho, his former assistant at Barcelona and a free agent after his sacking by Chelsea six months earlier, appointed just days later. Football’s worst kept secret was finally official.

There are, of course, no guarantees at this stage that Zidane will replace Mourinho at United, even if it would surprise few to see the Frenchman – available after leaving Real Madrid in June – takes the reins next summer, or perhaps sooner, if a fragile predicament worsens. United have, at least publicly, backed Mourinho and only last week addressed the Zidane talk head on. “Why would we discuss Zidane when there is no job available?” a senior source at the club said.

Nonetheless, the stories emanating in recent days that the former Real coach expects to be offered the Old Trafford job should Mourinho depart bear more than a passing resemblance to the ones that circulated about the Portuguese telling friends he was interested in managing United when Van Gaal was still in situ.

Mourinho knows better than most how this ruthless business works but for the first time he finds himself on the other side of the fence – no longer the man stalking an incumbent manager but the one being stalked. The irony is that, just as Mourinho ended up replacing at United the man he used to call boss in Catalonia, so he must now contend with someone he took under his wing at the Bernabeu potentially succeeding him in Manchester. Zidane was already working for Florentino Perez, the Real president, when Mourinho, then the Spanish club’s manager, made a plea for the former France playmaker to work more closely with the first team.

Zidane would later become Real’s sporting director, then assistant to Carlo Ancelotti when Mourinho left, before taking charge of the club’s B team. When Rafael Benitez was sacked as Real’s first team coach in January 2016, Zidane was given the job and duly delivered what would be the first of a hat-trick of Champions League crowns, an extraordinary introduction to top level management.

All told, in two-and-a-half years with Real, Zidane won nine trophies, including the La Liga title and two Club World Cups. Mauricio Pochettino also has plenty of admirers at United but, aside from his contractual situation at Tottenham, who would fight hard to keep the Argentine, if there is a question mark from United’s perspective it is that the Spurs head coach has yet to deliver any silverware, let alone win big like Zidane.

A United victory against Pochettino’s side on Monday would certainly help to ease some of the pressure growing on Mourinho but how he handles the threat of regular bulletins linking Zidane, or others, with his post will be as intriguing in some respects as the battle to prevent his third season at Old Trafford going the way of others at his previous clubs.

Claudio Ranieri used to openly embrace the “dead man walking” tag in his final months as Chelsea manager when it was apparent to all, not least the Italian, that Mourinho would be replacing him. Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, similarly, had to contend with the uncomfortable knowledge during the final months of their reins at Inter Milan and Real respectively that they would soon be making way for Mourinho. This time the shoe is on the other foot for Mourinho.

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Online Editors