Not special – just humiliated
IFA week is a long time in politics, half a minute could change a dynasty in football. Jose Mourinho had gone back to his spiritual home to stink the place out: he ended up coated in the smelly stuff and leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
A draw at Stamford Bridge and he would have returned to his million-pound mansion in nearby Belgravia, opened a bottle of Barca Velha and reflected on a palatable week: two of his title rivals effectively smothered in their own backyards.
The bus had been successfully parked at Anfield, there was a consummate win in Europe but the bus was still being manoeuvred into position again on Sunday when it was ambushed. Twenty minutes later it was 2-0 and there was no escape.
So, instead of lauding the Special One for gradually getting his message across at United, a harsher assessment is that he was lucky to scrape a dire draw with an off-key Liverpool, pushed over a weak Fenerbahce and got horribly mugged in his former fortress.
The upshot is that his worst ever defeat in the Premier League - “a humiliation” indeed – leaves him looking a sore loser at the very least and has made an enemy of a new manager who may just have stolen his imperial clothes.
Antonio Conte would have appreciated him speaking Italian but not the pitch-side lecture – the Chelsea boss is entitled to encourage his own crowd at a time United fans were making noise, and won’t take kindly to the way it was very publicly done. It may have been a classic diversionary tactic but Mourinho better watch out if he ever does it to Diego Simeone.
In a packed title race, United are already off the pace and five points worse off than they were this time last season under Louis van Gaal. They have won only one of their last six league matches.
Next up are Manchester City in the League Cup and with City also stuttering, it was looking the perfect time to put one over his nemesis Pep Guardiola and have United on a roll. Now, at least in the immediate scheme of things, it becomes a must-win game.
Such, then, is the fickle finger when one opportunist strike by a player Mourinho signed combined with what he called “incredible” defensive mistakes including David de Gea impersonating Claudio Bravo and Chris Smalling impersonating a statue – can produce a speed bump in October and raise doubts about the manager himself.
Pre-match he admitted he was not special yet in Manchester – but left open the possibility. He also vowed that he was “100% United” and that Chelsea was in the past. But on the evidence so far – a summer spending spree in which the bulk of the money went on one player and a fledgling season when United have only fleetingly clicked as a unit – he is still floundering with the biggest challenge of his career.
Buying Paul Pogba was always more about the Glazers and Ed Woodward wanting to make a bold statement to concerned shareholders than a typical Mourinho signing. And so far, it can be safely said that being able to boast of the world’s most expensive player has pleased the New York Stock Exchange more than the Stretford End.
Fans are sick of hearing that Pogba is talented – they can see that but want to see him show it more often than fleeting, decorative touches at 20-minute intervals in a game. Where United needed a new engine, it looks very much as if they’ve blown the budget on a paint job and upholstery.
French journalist Philippe Auclair, who has watched Pogba scores of times, claims this is how he is no matter who he plays for and the notion of his being a traditional box-to-box dynamo who takes charge of a game is wishful thinking.
A player more cut out for that role is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a £27m signing from Borussia Dortmund and Player of the Year in the Bundesliga last season, but who has been mysteriously ostracised. Even Eric Bailly, who made an early impression, has faded and now could be out for several weeks with knee ligaments damaged in fouling Eden Hazard. Poetic justice at its harshest.
The fourth - and free - signing Mourinho made, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, made a favourable early impact but has been fading for a while and is without a goal since September 10. As many predicted, the giant Swede could be finding the pace and rigour of the Premier League a shock to the system after the more leisurely Ligue Un.
It is still early doors and Mourinho has the confidence of his bosses, but he has done little to dispel doubts first raised in last season’s meltdown at Chelsea. The Stamford Bridge faithful kept reminding him “You’re not special any more”, and he has hardly refuted that – his inimitable sulks and colourful quotes aside.
No longer animated on the bench, he was as emotionless as he was helpless as the rout unfolded. And those United fans who were sceptical about him in the first place now have a lot more ammunition. Marcus Rashford apart, he does not play youngsters, he has fashioned no discernible style of play and doesn’t yet know his best team. He hasn’t even sorted out Wayne Rooney.
The watching Fergie would not have been impressed but at least Van Gaal may have permitted himself a rare chuckle. This job is bigger than anyone can imagine and his only consolation is that Pep is finding it’s no cinch on the other side of town either.
It is a measure of their respective difficulties that the two most hyped managers in modern football are both badly in need of a win tomorrow in the humble League Cup.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) shakes hands with Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte after the final whistle of the English Premier League match at Stamford Bridge in London yesterday.