Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Is Mourinho about to become Special again?

There’s a revealing insight in Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me where Hamilton, then a journalist at the Nottingham Evening Post, wonders why Clough is so excited at beating Leyton Orient to win the Anglo-Scottish Cup with Nottingham Forest in 1976. Clough explains that winning he first trophy is always the most difficult.

Jose Mourinho probably has similar sentiments about the League Cup — he has made a habit of making it his first trophy. During his initial spell at Chelsea the Blues lifted the trophy in 2005, beating Liverpool 3-2. When he returned to Stamford Bridge his side again won the trophy in 2015, beating Spurs 2-0.

It’s possible that Southampton could pull off a Bobby-Stokes-type shock on Sunday and repeat their 1976 FA Cup Final triumph against United. But without the departed Fonte and injured Van Dijk it’s surely doubtful the Saints defence can hold out against Ibrahimovic, a player with a Shard-sized ego, but who produces on the big occasion. Despite United's fixture congestion you'd also expect Mourinho to come up with some winning tactical ploys. 

When Mourinho becomes playful instead of churlish, the signs are he’s on the way to trophies. The master defensive tactician has been mischievously boasting about the attacking football his team are playing. “We were phenomenal, at Man United you have to play in a certain way,” he gushed after a win against Watford. He even called his old charges at Chelsea “very defensive.” The last time he looked this confident was when he started talking at Chelsea about his team being, “Beautiful young eggs, eggs that need a mum, in this case a dad, to take care of them.”

His work has been impressive at United so far. The club has spent a fortune since Ferguson left (Di Maria anyone?) and are still over-reliant on a 35-year-old striker. But since a 4-0 hammering at Chelsea United have gone 16 games unbeaten in the league.

Mourinho made big statements early. He didn’t include World Cup winner Sebastien Schweinsteiger in the squad and dropped Wayne Rooney — though his man management appears to have been good enough to ensure Rooney is still behind the team. He’s refusing to play the £27 million left back Luke Shaw because the men in possession of the shirts are doing well. When Jones and Rojo were doing well as a centre back pairing earlier this season they retained their places.

Above all Jose seems to coaxing the likes of Mata and Herrera into becoming better team players and getting consistent performances from the lesser stars like Valencia. He’s challenged players like Mkhitaryan to produce in his system and they have. While he’s even praising Marouane Fellaini (at some personal risk, the Belgian’s hug after scoring agains Hull nearly smothered the diminutive Mourinho) and emphasizing how important he is to the group.

Should United win the League Cup they could then challenge for the Europa League and FA Cup this season the title next season. At present there’s a jauntiness about Mourinho — he even clapped Blackburn’s goal against United in the FA Cup — that suggests the Special One might be back.

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