José Mourinho has gained a reputation for alienating many in the game. The big personality, robust ego and single-minded drive to win is ill-suited to making friends. Yet, the Portuguese manager comes face-to-face this weekend with one of his few friends in the game, former assistant and Middlesbrough coach Aitor Karanka. It’ll be a meeting of minds as well as colleagues. Yet, with Manchester United desperate to add a fifth straight league win as momentum builds, there’ll be little time for friendship at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Karanka and Mourinho worked together at Real Madrid for three years, with the Spanish international recommended by former teammates Luís Figo, Clarence Seedorf and Predrag Mijatovic for the role at the Bernabeu. By the third season, with Mourinho’s relationships broken across the club – from board down to players – Karanka took an increasingly active role on the training ground. The symbiosis grew strong. It is a time on which the Spaniard reflects fondly; a proving ground for a managerial career that is still in its early stages, but already showing real promise.
On Saturday apprentice meets master, the dynamic so often played out across football. The odds are with Mourinho, of course, not least because his United side has found a way to win after a frustrating series of draws through the autumn.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]He’s a real friend. I always want him to win, he always wants me to win and tomorrow is the first time and the unique time where I want to win, he wants to win and that’s football.[/blockquote]
The winning run, which has taken the Reds to within four points of the Champions League places, has salvaged what could have become a third disastrous season in succession. Instead, United lies within touching distance of a return to the European top-table, and in with a shout of picking up silverware in three other competitions.
Karanka, meanwhile, first guided Boro out of the Championship last season, and now to a position of reasonable comfort, four points off the relegation zone. Middlesbrough has enjoyed a mixed campaign to date, losing eight in the Premier League, but victories over Swansea City, Bournemouth, Hull City and Sunderland could yet be crucial in any fight against relegation.
The manager’s ambitions stretch further than a battle at the wrong end of the league though to, one day, matching his mentor’s success domestically and in the Champions League. The Spaniard’s intensity and ambition stretched his relationship with Boro to breaking point during the summer, only for Karanka and club to find enough balance for the manager to remain on Teeside.
“My ambition is to beat José on Saturday,” Karanka said. “I hope, one day, I can manage in the Champions League and do something like him but I’m doing the steps at the moment. We’re really good friends but for 90 minutes on Saturday, we can’t be friends. I’ll try to surprise him – but it’s difficult to surprise José; he’s the best.”
Mourinho has kept a watching brief on Karanka during the 43-year-old’s spell on in the north east, although there will be no special favours this weekend. After beating Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland this month, United could climb to within a point of Champions League qualification with victory on Saturday.
“He’s a real friend. I always want him to win, he always wants me to win and tomorrow is the first time and the unique time where I want to win, he wants to win and that’s football,” said Mourinho. “Sometimes brothers against brothers happens. So for 90 minutes he wants to win, I want to win, and that’s it.”
United’s victory over Sunderland last weekend underlines the genuine momentum at Old Trafford. Though Mourinho’s side played well during disappointing draws against Burnley, Stoke City and Arsenal, among others, points count above all. It is an observation in which Mourinho is well versed.
Yet, the series of victories in December has changed the narrative surrounding Mourinho’s side. Another win on Saturday will take the Reds into the New Year as the country’s in-form side, save for the manager’s old haunt at Chelsea. Indeed, with a programme that looks friendly over the next two months, it is not unrealistic for United to claw back some of the 13-point gap to the league leaders, although Mourinho has little time for any title talk. For the moment victory is victory; progress is key.
“The momentum of playing well comes from long time ago. It’s difficult for me to remember the last match where we didn’t play well. But the reality is that in the last four Premier League matches and five competitive matches we’ve managed to win and in this moment we need points,” said the United manager. “Let’s try to get three more at home at Old Trafford for our fans. It is a good day to play football, the last day of the year, so let’s try.”
The win over the Blacks Cats included Henryk Mkhitaryan’s scorpion-kick wonder-strike in a game United thoroughly dominated. It also included another goal – and two assists – for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish striker who now has 10 in his past nine games after suffering something of a fallow spell during the late summer. The strike took to 50 the number of club goals Ibrahimovic has scored in 2016, including 17 for United in all competitions. The Swede’s capture has proven inspired, beating the expectations of many for a 35-year-old in his first season in England.
“When I scored [against Sunderland] it was 50, but that is not one of my objectives because if a player starts to focus only on scoring goals it means he’s focusing only on himself,” said the Swede. “I’m not here to focus on myself because I’m here to help my team-mates win. If the collective does well, the individual will do well and I prefer to have it that way.
Ibrahimovic delivered the cross for Mkhitaryan to find the net on Boxing Day, a ball the Swede described as perfect: “I said to myself ‘if I put it a little behind him he can do the backheel’ – exactly like we have been training for these couple of weeks and it worked. I was super happy, I was the one jumping higher than everybody else when we were celebrating!”
The celebration should continue at the weekend. Momentum is United’s.
Former Red Victor Valdes is likely to line up in goal for the visitors this weekend despite the Spaniard’s error against Burnley in Boro’s last outing. Elsewhere Fabio Da Silva could also feature, with the former United defender having played seven times for Middlesbrough this season, albeit only once in the Premier League.
Boro lie 15th, four points off the relegation zone, but with little margin for error. The team’s victories this season have largely come against fellow relegation fodder, although Boro secured a hard-earned draw with Arsenal at the Emirates in October. Karanka’s side was beaten 1-0 at Burnley on Boxing Day.
“It is always tough when you lose to a direct opponent in the table. It is frustrating because I think we were better than them,” said the Boro manager. “We had the chances, especially in the first half, and I think we had the game under control. We missed an opportunity to add points on the table. But now we think about the future, and Manchester United.”
Viktor Fischer is out for the next fortnight, but the midfielder is Middlesbrough’s sole injury absentee at Old Trafford. Antonio Barragan is suspended.
Captain Wayne Rooney sits out another match, although Mourinho has a relatively fit squad from which to choose. Rooney missed United’s victory over Sunderland with a thigh injury, but the 31-year-old could return for the Reds’ trip to West Ham United next week.
United subs from: Romero, Depay, Smalling, Bailly, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Lingard, Schneiderlin, Mata, Young, Rashford
Boro subs from: Guzan, Ayala, Leadbitter, Stuani, Espinosa, Nsue, Downing, De Sart, Nugent, Rhodes
Defender Luke Shaw is training with the first team, but is not yet ready to start, leaving Daley Blind to continue at left-back. The Dutchman excelled last week in the position to which he is best suited. Elsewhere in defence Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling are available, although Mourinho is unlikely to break the blossoming partnership between Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. Matteo Darmian is more likely to feature in next week’s game against Reading in the FA Cup.
In midfield Mkhitaryan could start for the first time since suffering an injury earlier this month. The Armenian enjoyed a very profitable 30 minutes against Sunderland from the bench, with Juan Mata the man most likely to drop out in a largely unchanged side. Michael Carrick is due a rest and has been left out of the matchday squad for Boro’s visit, but for the moment Mourinho is reticent to break the Reds’ momentum by serving up widespread rotation.
“Middlesbrough is the next game and the next game you play to win. So we are going to think about Middlesbrough and try to choose the team that gives us guarantees and chances to win the match. That includes everyone that is available and everyone we think is important for the match. This is the match – it’s not West Ham, it’s not Reading, it’s not Liverpool – so if this is the match, we are going to play with the players that I think are the best to play.”
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: M McDonough, D Cann
Fourth official: N Swarbrick
United 2-0 Middlesbrough