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