It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.
Which is the greater priority: finishing inside the Premier League’s top four or winning the Europa League? With each comes Champions League qualification, although only victory in Europe’s second tier competition brings with it silverware. Certainly, the regularly dropped points in the Premier League this season has placed greater emphasis on European competition. The latest side in United’s path – Belgian league leaders Anderlecht.
Manchester United came, Manchester United saw, Manchester United stuck it to David Moyes on Wearside. So, it wasn’t the finest performance, but after two draws at Old Trafford in the past week, three points offer a great fillip to the Reds’ hopes of making the Champions League
Has Manchester United manager José Mourinho regressed into his bad cop routine just a little too early? The pattern is familiar, the one in which Dirty Harry challenges his punk players to try their luck. Just one more time. It begins with key players being ostracised in an increasingly public fashion, as if to distract from on-the-pitch failings, and ends with Mourinho leaving his post ignominiously, player power having won. Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Chelsea again. Bad cop gone bad. The red flags are many at Old Trafford as well. In the course of a week Mourinho launched into an astonishing and public attack on his creative players, before throwing youthful defender Luke Shaw under a lengthy bus. Yet, for all the concerns raised by Mourinho the man manager this week it is another pattern that is troubling the Portuguese coach most – the inability of his team to win games at Old Trafford. It will probably cost the club a place in next season’s Champions League.
Relief, at last, from the many long nights of international boredom. The real stuff happens this weekend, with José Mourinho’s Manchester United in Premier League action against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Such is the malaise surrounding FIFA’s lengthy two-year World Cup qualification process that the nation awaits the Premier League’s return, save for Arsenal supporters, for whom a meaningless friendly between Andora and Vanuatu is merciful respite from the soul crushing misery of their reality.
Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long-proposed move to Chicago Fire was finally completed this week, with the German heading Stateside ahead of the new MLS season. The World Cup winner left with a classy parting message to Manchester United fans and seemingly no bitterness, despite what has been a difficult and unproductive 18 months at Old Trafford. Schweinsteiger’s departure means that five of Louis van Gaal’s 10 signings as United manager have now left the club. Of those who remain perhaps only two can be considered successful, each with caveats attached. It is a truly rotten legacy.
After a two-week break, Ed & Paul look back on United’s past few games – against Bournemouth, Rostov, Chelsea and Middlesbrough. It has been a turbulent fortnight, with United now out of the FA Cup, out of sixth place in the league and one step further forward in the Europa League.
As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
The pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
What once was Manchester United’s fourth priority this season is now rapidly climbing in importance. The Europa League may be the tournament of losers and failures, but victory in the final on 24 May in Stockholm comes with the prize of Champions League football next season. The Reds may need it, especially after José Mourinho’s side dropped yet more points at home last weekend. Fourth place or better is now out of United’s hands.