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Friday 24 November 2017

Mourinho needs big statement

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho speaks to playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan in training ahead of tonight’s Europa League semi-final, second leg clash at Old Trafford. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho speaks to playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan in training ahead of tonight’s Europa League semi-final, second leg clash at Old Trafford. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

There's a sense of quiet desperation about Jose Mourinho's pursuit of the Europa League and the golden ticket to the Champions League that comes with it.

He needs to make a big statement in the Europa League and his claim that United have had a good season will only carry substance if he reaches and wins the final.

By the standard of the last few seasons, it might be rated good and back in the day when Alex Ferguson was on the brink, a Mark Robins inspired FA Cup run saved him and created the platform for a trophy fest unlike anything the club had ever seen.

So from Mourinho's perspective and given the fact that he had to work with the leftovers from three managers and just two trophy signings, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, one Cup banked and more than a leg in a European final can't be half bad.

Still, Manchester United supporters have high expectations and when the manager sounded happy about winning second tier trophies, the more highly strung and less knowledgeable among the fan base reached for social media.

That's why tonight's Europa League semi-final second-leg against Celta Vigo is another pivotal moment for a club which likes to think of itself as the biggest on the planet. Image is everything.

The world has moved on and when Ferguson looked vulnerable, the Edwards family only had to deal with the BBC, back pages and the occasional bedsheet scrawled with the late 80s version of a Tweet.

"3 years of excuses and it's still crap - tara Fergie," read the infamous banner held up back in December, 1989 after United lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace, creating headlines a day later which triggered a wave of negative sentiment.

Bobby Charlton has since claimed that Ferguson had received assurances from Martin Edwards that his job was safe but the space for that kind of intimate and thoughtful decision making has all but gone.

Mourinho is on trial like no United manager before him and not just because he is the most controversial manager in world football. Now, every twitch is parsed an analysed and while Mourinho has good grounds to plead that he has done a good job in very difficult circumstances, the consensus doesn't agree.

It has been notable in recent weeks that the tone of commentary about Mourinho has shifted to question whether he is now a dinosaur coach when the real issue is whether he is still a winning coach.

Judgement is instant nowadays and Mourinho saw how quickly everything went badly wrong at Stamford Bridge.

Derison

He hasn't helped himself by his public flaying of Luke Shaw while talking up Paul Pogba, a player he spent more than €100m on.

Mourinho's claim that Pogba has been every inch the world record player United want him to be was greeted with digital derision.

More rational critics have pointed out Pogba's weaknesses as a playmaker. He looks like an amateur beside the assured, dominant midfield presence which N'Golo Kante brings to a football pitch.

Pogba has shown glimpses of his talent but never more than that and there is no contest in any comparison with Chelsea's engine room. Early days though and time for him to earn his fee.

Many of the same pundits believed that Zlatan was a punt too far for Mourinho and we were all wrong about that. Shots of him on crutches during the week underlined how big a gap he has left behind.

It's not just his goals that are missed. Ibra provided backbone and an ocean of experience. A man who most believed would be an unsettling influence in the dressing room turned into the leader David Moyes and Louis van Gaal needed but never had.

Without him, United are gauche and sloppy and Mourinho has been forced to rely on Maraoune Fellaini for his long ball strategy.

It wasn't enough to deliver the points he needed to hunt down Liverpool but it was enough to come away from Vigo with a 1-0 win.

United have all the advantages from their first-leg win in the Balaídos last week but Celta Vigo's counter-attack has worked well on the road in the Europa League and a 1-0 lead can be a treacherous scoreline to protect.

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