LONDON (AP) — Real Madrid's Champions League campaign had just ended in defeat when Jose Mourinho spotted an opportunity to send a message.
Even though Madrid can still end a mediocre season — mediocre by its high standards, anyway — with the Copa del Rey title, Mourinho is laying the groundwork for a divorce, dropping heavy hints about a return to the English Premier League and Chelsea, the team he managed from June 2004 to September 2007.
"I know in England I am loved," he said during a news conference in Madrid after Tuesday night's elimination. "I'm loved by the fans. I'm loved by the media that treats me in a fair way, criticizing me when they have (to), but giving me credit when I deserve it. I know I'm loved by some clubs, especially one. And in Spain the situation is a bit different because some people hate me. And many of you are in this room."
Fans in west London were stunned when Mourinho's relationship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich broke down in 2007 after three-plus seasons that included league titles in 2005 and 2006 — the first for the club since 1955 — and the 2007 FA Cup.
Each of his successors — Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez — has been judged against Mourinho's achievements and allure.
Few, if any, have succeeded in matching his success and charisma, particularly not Benitez.
Installed as interim manager in November despite fan opposition that turned his early matches into a cauldron of hatred, Benitez's reign has underlined the need for a unifying figure to serve as the permanent manager. Benitez already has said he will be leaving when the season ends next month.
"One day, naturally, I have to be back," Mourinho said last month in London, where he kept a home. "Chelsea is in my heart."
Chelsea players are bracing for the return of the colorful leader.
"Everyone who loves Chelsea hopes Mourinho will return," Chelsea defender Bransilav Ivanovic was quoted as telling Serbian newspaper Vecernje Novosti.
Chelsea hasn't been close to winning the Premier League since Ancelotti delivered the title in 2010, and Chelsea isn't even assured of a Champions League berth for next season.
"With (Mourinho) we can be stronger as a club," Ivanovic said in the Serbian interview last week. "It would add another dimension to Chelsea, and it would be sure to help us become one of the main contenders for the title."
Mourinho has retained his swagger in recent years while appearing to tone down some the bravado, engaging in fewer conflicts with rivals and referees.
It's unlikely soccer would witness a repeat of the frenzied dash down the touchline by Mourinho at Old Trafford following a second-round win in 2004 en route to the Champions League title with Porto. When Mourinho's Madrid won at United in March, he even quietly headed toward the dressing room before the final whistle blew and then praised the losers.
Back at Madrid, some are trying to play down the impact of Mourinho's potential departure.
"It doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is Real Madrid and myself," Cristiano Ronaldo said. "Decisions about players and coaches do not matter to me. If Real Madrid is happy with him, why not (keep Mourinho)?
"To me, he is a great coach. But he is the person who knows his own future, whether he and his family are comfortable. These are decisions we have to respect and that's all."
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris