Thursday 24 May 2018

Gathering crisis for Special One will get a whole lot worse if Conte twists knife at Old Trafford

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Getty
James Lawton

James Lawton

If Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were matadors rather than football coaches, they might well sell out every bullring in Spain and Latin America. What they offer on Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford is more than a duel of will and style but a test of what they represent as two of the most successful coaches in the modern game.

Talk about a moment of truth. This one, surely, has just about everything you could want.

Neither are fighting for their lives, it is true, but both men have, very differently, made vast investments in their credibility and before Sunday's match there can be no argument that it is Mourinho's which is most at risk.

Certainly, he has failed to match the grace under pressure displayed by Conte as he brought his Chelsea back to impressive - but for one lethal defensive mistake - fighting efficiency in the superb 1-1 Champions League battle with Barcelona.

Some thought he had been broken by a disaffected dressing room and a frugal and unappreciative board room but against Barca it was the old Conte, passionate, acute and believable when he says he will go to the Nou Camp dreaming an "incredible dream".

There was hard running, a sustained commitment and a powerful sense of quite what they were up against. Conte looked like a man who had just emerged from a short but very dark tunnel.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: PA
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: PA

Twenty-four hours later in Seville, Mourinho was showing not grace or relief at a fortunate draw but some vintage sourness.

His decision to play the uninspiring Ander Herrera before Paul Pogba carried at the very least a whiff of pettiness.

More than anything, it seemed Mourinho was making his point, but it was one of a hollowness that Pogba soon exposed when he warmed up to the job of replacing the injured Herrera.

No, we didn't see the best of Pogba, again, but unquestionably enough of it to remind us of his exceptional skill and movement.

Mourinho's most striking reaction was to blame the United medical staff for furnishing faulty information on Herrera's fitness. A wider one had to be that the manager, not for the first time, had been betrayed by his own most formidable and all-persuasive ego.

None of this would have been half as wounding to Mourinho if his team had shown even a fraction of the nerve and the cohesion produced by Chelsea against club football's most talented team. Chelsea's one mistake, a marginally but critically inaccurate ball out of defence, was exploited by no less than Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

That was the measure of Chelsea's failure to carry a goal lead to Barcelona, one that might have been three but for that single defensive error and the fact that the splendid Willian twice hit the woodwork. Against a Seville widely rated among the lightweights of the last 16 of the Champions League, United could make no such pleading.

This was the latest failure of Mourinho to impose any sense of a surely developing United.

Pogba's delayed appearance was an absurdity. While those redoubtable midfielders John Giles and Roy Keane are undoubtedly right when they say the Frenchman is not the finished article, it is also true that the young Cristiano Ronaldo had more than a few feckless moments and it did take a few years to quite understand the extent of Messi's genius.

This isn't to say that Pogba will one day be a Ronaldo or a Messi, only that he has a rich talent, has cost his club £89m and that the manager, far from protecting the investment, is currently playing public and thus far apparently damaging mind games.

As it is, the odds favour Mourinho going further in the Champions' League than Sunday's rivals but it is a possibility that would have been quite grotesquely destroyed if David De Gea hadn't made stupendous saves against Sevilla. For the Special One it is a gathering crisis. His team, despite the arrival of the highly talented, intense Alexis Sanchez, resolutely refuse to take flight.

But then that may be a misnomer. Mourinho's teams tend not to soar. When he is at his best and most cajoling, they do what they must do to win. This week in Spain United seemed as bereft of such nous as they did when being outplayed, utterly, by Tottenham and failed to make any impact at Newcastle.

Mourinho glowered in his seat as his Sevilla rival Vincenzo Montella prowled the touchline with a dawning sense of a great, improbable victory.

In his Serie A playing days for Roma, Montella was nicknamed the 'aeroplanino' for his habit of stretching his arms wing-like after scoring. On Wednesday, he stayed earthbound but at least he could say that his team had played with greater passion - and organisation.

Sunday calls for United to display some of those qualities as keenly as at any time since the retirement of Alex Ferguson.

Conte, by the sharpest of comparison, can reasonably ask for no more than he received in the Barca game. It was the sight of his team fighting to their re-discovered limits.

Mourinho has known that feeling often enough and to history-making levels but there were times on Wednesday when it seemed rather a long time ago.

It is another reason to see Mourinho versus Conte as something more than a mere football contest. And, maybe, for someone to sound a fanfare of trumpets, if not the Pasodoble.

Irish Independent

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