MOUR­INHO’S MO­MENT

Fail­ure to win Europa League will mean re­newed pres­sure on United man­ager

New Straits Times - - Sport - Reuters

JOSE Mour­inho’s first sea­son at Manch­ester United will be deemed by many as a fail­ure un­less they win today’s Europa League fi­nal against Ajax Am­s­ter­dam to se­cure Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

The Por­tuguese coach ar­rived at Old Traf­ford at the start of this cam­paign charged with the task of restor­ing United to, if not their old dom­i­nance, at least a place at the top ta­ble in the Pre­mier League elite.

But a sixth-place fin­ish is lower than Mour­inho’s pre­de­ces­sor Louis van Gaal man­aged in his two sea­sons, which con­cluded with fourth and fifth places.

It is not the pres­tige of the Europa League ti­tle that would change the per­spec­tive on the former Chelsea and Real Madrid man­ager’s first year at United but the place that tri­umph would se­cure in the con­ti­nent’s top club com­pe­ti­tion.

For United, a sec­ond straight sea­son out­side the Euro­pean elite would not only be a blow for the fans and the club’s sta­tus but could also af­fect their abil­ity to re­cruit the very best ta­lent from across the globe.

For Mour­inho, there is also his own ‘brand’ to con­sider.

The 54-year-old left Chelsea last sea­son af­ter a shock­ing cam­paign of un­der-achieve­ment, only for largely the same group of play­ers to march to the Pre­mier League ti­tle this term un­der his re­place­ment Ital­ian Antonio Conte.

The move to United of­fered a chance to re­store Mour­inho’s rep­u­ta­tion as a win­ner — but a sea­son with just a League Cup tri­umph and no Cham­pi­ons League place would surely have his crit­ics crow­ing again.

Mour­inho’s tac­tics have been crit­i­cised as overly cau­tious and oth­ers have taken aim at his habit of pub­licly nam­ing and sham­ing in­di­vid­ual play­ers, such as full­back Luke Shaw.

On Mon­day, ex-France and Ar­se­nal striker turned Sky Sports

TV pun­dit Thierry Henry said United’s big­gest sign­ing — world record £89 mil­lion (RM489.5 mil­lion) pur­chase Paul Pogba — was un­der-per­form­ing due to Mour­inho’s tac­tics.

“They don’t use Pogba where he should be play­ing — he’s not a hold­ing mid­fielder. He likes to play higher or off the left,” said Henry.

But a win over Ajax would al­low a greater hear­ing for a more gen­er­ous eval­u­a­tion of Mour­inho’s first 12 months at United.

Last month’s 2-0 home vic­tory over even­tual English cham­pi­ons Chelsea, pro­vided indi­ca­tions that next sea­son United could be both more suc­cess­ful and more en­ter­tain­ing.

Teenage striker Mar­cus Rash­ford was ex­cel­lent in that game and has en­joyed a sea­son where he has made clear steps for­ward in de­liv­er­ing on his un­doubted po­ten­tial.

Span­ish mid­fielder An­der Her­rera was a cru­cial el­e­ment in stop­ping Chelsea’s of­ten deadly counter-at­tacks and has shown that he can be­come a key el­e­ment in the United mid­field.

French de­fender Eric Bailly has also grown this sea­son and he is by no means alone — sev­eral play­ers in the United squad have en­joyed pos­i­tive cam­paigns.

While few have time for Mour­inho’s press con­fer­ence ‘blame games’, there is no doubt he is jus­ti­fied in high­light­ing United’s lengthy in­jury list dur­ing a busy sea­son fi­nale.

A Pre­mier League high of 15 draws — 10 at home — wrecked United’s hopes of a top-four spot, but at­tack­ing re­in­force­ments in the trans­fer win­dow should help ad­dress that prob­lem.

Win today and Mour­inho will go into the close sea­son able to prom­ise his trans­fer tar­gets that next year will be about chal­leng­ing on the do­mes­tic and Cham­pi­ons League fronts.

A de­feat changes the nar­ra­tive to one which next sea­son fo­cuses on whether Mour­inho re­ally is the right man to turn around the 20time English cham­pi­ons’ for­tunes.

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