LONDON - A bottle of wine and two Real Madrid shirts in a plastic bag was all it took to convince Mauricio Pochettino of Jose Mourinho’s real character, away from the pantomime villain often portrayed.
Pochettino, a novice coach in charge of Espanyol at the time, lost to Mourinho’s Real but the Portuguese had asked around for his opposite number’s favourite poison. He brought him a bottle of red from the renowned Chateau Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, along with two signed shirts for Pochettino’s sons. It was instant friendship.
Time permitting, the pair will share another post-match tipple tonight, just at a time when Mourinho could use all the friends he can find at Old Trafford. Pochettino has seen the stories coming out of Manchester United in recent weeks, from Mourinho’s problems with Ed Woodward, to Paul Pogba to Pep Guardiola to the press.
Yet his opinion has not changed. The Tottenham manager believes Mourinho is and always will be the right man for any big job, because he inspired each and every young coach in football today.
"For every single manager who is younger than him, he was an inspiration," Pochettino said. "For everyone. Of course. I took a lot of things from him. So many things. He is an unbelievable manager. I am younger than him, of course. The circumstances that happen with me, that happen with other managers, they will happen, it is up and down.
"He is an inspirational manager for a manager like me. I have a very good relationship with 'Mou' from when I was a manager of Espanyol and I have full respect for him and the club."
On paper, it is not a friendship you might have expected. Pochettino, after all, favours an exciting, entertaining style of play and has few enemies in football. Mourinho is more cautious, and can start an argument in an empty room.
The Argentine has sympathy for his counterpart, however, explaining that all coaches feel "exposed" because their decisions are dissected on a daily basis, not least by their own fans.
"When you lose, you feel the responsibility," Pochettino said. "I am the manager. I assume responsibility. Always my thoughts are, 'You can do better'. Never is it enough. Even when you win, you can do better. That is the mentality. To win, it is every day, it is here on the training ground in every single situation."
Old Trafford is the only ground where Pochettino has yet to pick up a point - or even score a goal - with Tottenham. In four visits there they have left empty-handed. Today they travel to the Theatre of Dreams with Toby Alderweireld in their squad, though the centre back could easily have been wearing red rather than white.
Mourinho’s priority in the summer window was to sign a central defender and Alderweireld topped the list, but chief executive Woodward and United’s board did not deliver. The Belgian was known to be interested in the move to Manchester, although Pochettino insists all is forgiven and forgotten. New season, new start.
"First of all I tell them and then I tell you," Pochettino said after being asked about Alderweireld. "For me, all the players who are here start from zero. It is so important to give opportunities, not because of last season or two seasons ago. It is a new chapter. When I signed my new contract here, it was like I’d arrived on the first day. No prejudgment. You start from zero."
Woodward may not have delivered his manager’s top targets but he did bring in a few bodies. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy brought none, and Pochettino fears he is in for a challenging season.
"It is so difficult here in England," the Tottenham manager conceded. "Four competitions. Of course it is a massive challenge. We have been talking a lot, all the staff, the coaching staff, the medical staff, to try to make the best decisions. Now, more than ever, we need to be clever."
In 15 meetings, Mourinho has beaten Pochettino 11 times, lost three times and drawn once. They first met in 2010 at the Bernabeu, when Mourinho masterminded a 3-0 win for a Real side full of world-beaters over Pochettino’s Espanyol battlers. Tonight, they meet more as equals, pressing pause on their friendship in pursuit of three points.