United play­ers in the line of fire as Mour­inho’s mood dark­ens

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football - By Luke Ed­wards at Old Traf­ford

First came the Cham­pi­ons League de­feat to Sevilla that stung Jose Mour­inho and then came the pas­sion­ate de­fence of his achieve­ments that it pro­voked, but this was not the sort of vic­tory that was ever go­ing to do any­thing to im­prove his mood.

Hav­ing kept his fa­cial ex­pres­sions hid­den on the touch­line dur­ing the game with a snood that cov­ered half his face, as United made tough work of knock­ing Brighton out of the FA Cup, Mour­inho did not try to mask his thoughts af­ter it.

Even af­ter his name had been sung by United sup­port­ers through­out, Mour­inho went on the at­tack, crit­i­cis­ing the qual­ity of the per­for­mance, as well as the men­tal­ity of his play­ers. He knows he tak­ing a risk do­ing so, call­ing out play­ers in pub­lic al­ways takes you on to un­cer­tain ground, but the Por­tuguese seems de­ter­mined to chal­lenge them. He is test­ing them, prob­ing for a re­sponse, pok­ing and prod­ding egos, watch­ing for the re­ac­tion.

This was an­other insipid, timid dis­play. They may be in the semi-final, but United will not win ei­ther that or the final play­ing like this. So, Mour­inho did not mince his words.

“A few of guys I saw them scared to play,” he said af­ter sin­gling out Ne­manja Matic for praise. “I can­not say much more. It is a re­la­tion with per­son­al­ity, is a re­la­tion to trust, is a re­la­tion to class.

“When the sun is shin­ing and ev­ery­thing goes well, you win matches, you score goals, ev­ery­thing goes in your di­rec­tion, ev­ery player is a good player and wants to play and wants the ball and looks amaz­ing and is con­fi­dent.

“When it is dark and cold and in foot­ball that means a pe­riod of bad re­sults or a bad re­sult, not every­body has the con­fi­dence and per­son­al­ity to play. To be on the pitch and touch the ball ev­ery five min­utes, ev­ery­one can do it, but to be on the pitch and say give me the ball be­cause I want to play, not ev­ery­one can do that. So, I am re­ally happy with the re­sult and the con­trol we had. I know it could back fire [crit­i­cis­ing the play­ers in pub­lic] but it is my cal­cu­la­tion that they have to be able to play with pres­sure. If they do not per­form well with pres­sure, what do I lose?”

Yet, for the first time since he be­came United man­ager, this was a game Mour­inho sim­ply could not lose. There could be no ex­cuses of­fered, no de­fence for a de­feat.

When a man­ager pub­licly chal­lenges his play­ers in a bid to de­fend their own rep­u­ta­tion, it is their re­ac­tion that de­cides whether it was a blun­der or not. If United had been knocked out of the FA Cup here, Mour­inho’s sec­ond sea­son would have been reduced to ru­ins.

A de­feat against Brighton was, af­ter all the drama in the build-up, un­think­able. Win­ning the FA Cup was not

United’s pri­or­ity in Au­gust – and it prob­a­bly never will be for a club with its re­sources – but it is now.

Mour­inho al­ways wants to be judged on the sil­ver­ware he wins and while no­body can se­ri­ously ar­gue his sec­ond sea­son has gone as well as ex­pected, an FA Cup win, com­bined with a run­ner­sup fin­ish in the Pre­mier League would at least al­low him to claim, it has not been a disas­ter ei­ther.

So much would be re­vealed in how United started the game and with the des­ig­nated singing sec­tion away to Mour­inho’s right in good voice, they looked in the mood to put their re­cent dis­ap­point­ment behind them. Brighton were happy to drop deep, to soak up the pres­sure, but they looked vul­ner­a­ble as Romelu Lukaku volleyed over and An­thony Mar­tial’s con­trol let him down in­side the six-yard box.

Brighton’s sup­port­ers cheered their first cor­ner like a goal. Min­utes later, United’s best move sliced through the mid­dle of the vis­it­ing de­fence and Juan Mata’s shot was de­flected wide.

Brighton re­sponded, Lewis Dunk’s header from their sec­ond cor­ner fisted away by Ser­gio Romero, but a United goal was com­ing and it was Lukaku who got it, stretch­ing his neck mus­cles to get on the end of Ne­manja Matic’s ex­cel­lent cross.

It was his 25th goal in 44 ap­pear­ances this sea­son. Brighton, though, came close to an equaliser as Pas­cal Gross’ shot curled nar­rowly wide. Romero also needed to make an im­por­tant save to keep out Jur­gen Lo­ca­dia.

Brighton were grow­ing in con­fi­dence, Lo­ca­dia head­ing an­other de­cent chance over at the far post. For the first time, the home crowd grew ap­pre­hen­sive, re­minded of the timid­ity that had led to that Sevilla de­feat, as Chris Smalling and Matic both made im­por­tant blocks in­side the area as nerves spread.

United still have prob­lems to solve, but fi­nally they made sure of their progress into the last four when Matic headed in Ash­ley Young’s cross with seven min­utes re­main­ing.

“I’m de­lighted with the per­for­mance,” said Brighton man­ager Chris Hughton. “The only dif­fer­ence were the mo­ments in front of goal and the qual­ity they can pro­duce. We were al­ways in the game.”

Manch­ester United (4-2-3-1): Romero 7; Va­len­cia 6, Bailly 7, Smalling 7, Shaw 5 (Young 46); Matic 9, McTom­i­nay 5; Lin­gard 6, Mata 7 (Rash­ford 75), Mar­tial 6; Lukaku 7. Subs De Gea, Lin­de­lof, Pogba, Sanchez, Young, Rash­ford, Fel­laini. Brighton and Hove Al­bion (4-3-3): Krul 6; Sch­e­lotto 6, Dunk 7, Duffy 7, Sut­tner 6; Gross 7, Prop­per 7, Kayal 7; Lo­ca­dia 7, Ul­loa 5 (Mur­ray 76), March 6 (Izquierdo 68). Subs Maen­paa, Grau, Bal­dock, Gold­son, San­ders. Ref­eree An­dre Mar­riner (West Mid­lands).

Heads we win: Romelu Lukaku puts Manch­ester United in front (top); (left) Ne­manja Matic heads in the sec­ond goal

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