JOSE Mourinho took caution against Sevilla but when his former club arrives at Stamford Bridge three points adrift of Manchester United this weekend, can he afford to do so again at Old Trafford?
Symbols of style or substance mean little to the United boss, so long as it accompanies success but at home in a veritable six pointer, is a classic Mourinho shut down going to work?
While the Portuguese is reportedly willing to smoke the peace pipe and shake hands with his bitter adversary Antonio Conte before the game, there is more than pride on the line not just in the race for second place, but in the top four bottleneck, with Tottenham breathing down their necks as well. Indeed, an Old Trafford stalemate, plus favourable results for Liverpool and Spurs against West Ham and Palace, could see the latter leapfrog both these combatants on the weekend.
Mourinho’s hand might just be forced – by his successor.
Chelsea have started to turn things around after their poor start to 2018, and showed they can still buy into Conte’s methods via their backs-to-the-wall draw with Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
Given the Italian’s reactive style midweek, and with the return against Barcelona and a date with Manchester City imminent, it is unlikely Chelsea will come out and set the agenda at Old Trafford.
That doesn’t mean they can’t provide a coherent threat, though. Choosing Cesc Fabregas as one of the central pairing, like against Barca, increases the Blues’ potency on the counter-attack and Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso can peg back United’s wingers getting forward. Moses’ match-up with Ashley Young looms as an intriguing one.
The question is: will Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata return to the XI or will Conte opt for a more fluid from three again? The mobility of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro worked in Europe. The two more robust target men could provide an outlet but if Conte wants to move United around then perhaps using his talisman Hazard as a false No.9 could work again.
Indeed, giving him that free role could be a method to ensure Mourinho cannot get his team to kick the proverbial out of him again, as has happened in recent match-ups, with Phil Jones and Ander Herrera tasked with man marking the Belgian in matches last season.
It is fitting that Mourinho’s modus operandi would be to kick the life out of a player who once sparkled for him; but it would also completely toy with United’s formation and structure if Hazard is played in awkward positions all over the park, and it would surely open pastures for Willian or Fabregas to run riot.
It’s why Mourinho needs to set the template.
There are tools for Mourinho to stun everyone and take the initiative at home this weekend.
If they don’t, we’ll be consigned to the ultimate ‘tactical stalemate’.
If he does, then the speed of Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – even, perhaps, at the expense of Romelu Lukaku, who looks short of confidence at the moment -could be an answer.
The United that beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates this year showed what it can do when let off the leash with an early blitzkrieg.
Will Paul Pogba be a part of that game plan? Leaving him on the bench for two consecutive games would send the UK’s tabloids into overdrive about the Frenchman’s future with Mourinho, who seems to be in the midst of the latest power push that has plagued his polarising career. His compatriot N’Gola Kante symbolically outpointed him at times last season; if Pogba is re-instated, possibly alongside Nemanja Matic and 21-year-old Scott McTominay, he’ll need to use this stage to prove Mourinho wrong.
That, in turn, could help Mourinho prove his own critics wrong.
THE MOURINHO v CONTE FEUD (By AAP)
Such has been the war of words between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte it is easy to forget that a vitally important top-four battle is about to break out on the Old Trafford pitch.
From the moment Conte’s Chelsea thrashed Mourinho’s Manchester United 4-0 to kickstart their 2016-17 Premier League title charge, a simmering tension has existed between the pair, who both won the Premier League in their first season in England with the London side.
This season the discord erupted into open dislike with insults flying backwards and forwards.
In October, Mourinho said Conte was the kind of manager who “they cry, they cry, they cry when a player is injured”, while Conte suggested the Portuguese was far too interested in what was going on at the club where he was once worshipped after winning seven trophies in two spells.
Mourinho’s comments in January that not “behaving like a clown on the touchline” did not betray a lack of passion appeared to be directed Conte’s way. Conte took the bait and hit back in no uncertain terms, accusing Mourinho of suffering from amnesia although his original remark, later clarified, spoke of “senile dementia”.
Mourinho stoked the fires by dragging up a 2011 match-fixing saga that Conte was implicated in.
Conte, who always denied any wrongdoing in that affair, was furious and described Mourinho as “a little man with a very low profile” as the bad blood began to boil.