Tuesday 18 June 2019

José is steeling himself for even more back pain

Manchester United’s recent victory over Newcastle bought José Mourinho some breathing space, but he has a tough run of fixtures coming up. Photo: PA
Manchester United’s recent victory over Newcastle bought José Mourinho some breathing space, but he has a tough run of fixtures coming up. Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

All that speculation over José Mourinho's future subsided pretty quickly, did it not? There cannot really have been much of a crisis at Manchester United if a single, last-gasp win over a team in the bottom three has made everything hunky dory again, though once the uneasy international break truce is over the matter will be put to the test next weekend.

United's next three opponents are Chelsea, Juventus and Everton, a bit more of a challenge than Wolves, Derby and Newcastle, and it is not inconceivable based on recent form that they might struggle to win any of those games. The manager had the bright idea in the narrow 3-2 victory against Newcastle of pulling Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic back to operate alongside Chris Smalling because - stop me if you have heard this one before - United do not possess any central defenders of sufficient quality to play the ball out from the back.

Ed Woodward must certainly be weary of Mourinho trotting out that line by now and the executive vice-chairman is probably just as tired of countering that two of the central defenders the manager considers incapable - Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof - were brought to the club at no little expense by the Lowry hotel's most famous resident.

Despite the prolonged sulk over the club's failure to buy Harry Maguire or Toby Alderweireld in the summer, Mourinho made his point very well against Newcastle. Pogba and Matic drove forward through midfield in the second half to change the game, though what worked against a retreating Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diamé will not necessarily cut it against Chelsea or Juventus. Both of those sides are strong in midfield and both have attacking players who would be delighted to find themselves up against a side electing to play with Smalling as the only recognised central defender.

One imagines Mourinho will resort to smothering defensive tactics on his return to Stamford Bridge in any case - that seems to be his default setting for games against dangerous opponents - though the home game against Juventus might be trickier. Mourinho's rather feeble boast about having more points than any other English team in Europe last weekend was predicated on a comfortable win over Young Boys of Switzerland, not quite the standard of opposition Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester City found themselves facing when suffering Champions League defeats. Valencia get to play the Swiss side, so unless United are able to take points from the perennial Italian champions, Group H may soon be looking a little less comforting.

In all probability, the trip to Chelsea will set the tone for the rest of the week, both in terms of United's top-four aspirations, if they still have any, and Mourinho's tense relationship with the club's hierarchy and wider public. Chelsea are still unbeaten in all competitions, the last English club remaining unconquered, and though that might have something to do with playing in the Europa League rather than the Champions League, it still amounts to a terrific start for a new coach in a new country.

Maurizio Sarri seems to be getting more out of Eden Hazard than Mourinho did. The Belgian is playing with a new freedom and is the stand-out player in the Premier League at the moment, if not Europe. Comparisons are inevitable when Mourinho takes a team to Chelsea, and costly signings such as Pogba and Romelu Lukaku will be aware they have some catching up to do.

Should the subject of the former's interest in a move to Barcelona surface again as the transfer window approaches, United supporters would be entitled to feel particularly short-changed whatever financial recompense ends up being proposed. Pogba's career since rejoining United has been one distraction after another, with explosiveness being mostly confined to the back pages rather than the pitch. Hazard, on the other hand, has furthered his ambition of joining Real Madrid by playing to his full potential and reaching the level of unignorable talent his backers always felt was within his grasp. Chelsea will do well to keep him, assuming they believe they will be able to keep him. Hazard will not be allowed to go cheaply if he makes his expected switch next summer.

Should this turn out to be Hazard's last season in London, in other words, no-one can complain about the value he is providing, and the contrast with Pogba's handling of his affairs at United would be stark. Chelsea fans would hardly begrudge their best player his dream move, especially if he can make his valedictory campaign in England a memorable one.

That seems entirely possible. Hazard is in the form of his life and Chelsea under Sarri are already playing consistently well enough to be regarded as title contenders, which is something else that will probably irk their former manager. Sympathy for Mourinho is possible, however. It must be a hell of a job organising inferior defenders when you have to face Hazard and Cristiano Ronaldo in the space of four days.


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