The international break may have come at the worst possible time for Jose Mourinho after Manchester United’s miraculous comeback against Newcastle United, but the Portuguese coach needs to lay down a marker with a positive result against Chelsea when his players return.
Manchester United arguably played their best 45 minutes of football of the season, but it came against Rafa Benitez’s winless Newcastle United in a last-ditch all-out assault which may just have saved Mourinho his job.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford was palpable after United conceded its second goal of the game after just ten minutes, and Ed Woodward’s face seemed to only reinforce the climate captured within the stadium. The camera quickly panned towards the stands where viewers are increasingly inundated with any potentially negative reaction the chief executive fashions. Life at one of Europe’s top clubs is not easy, especially when things are not going to plan.
A fiery Mourinho stormed down the tunnel at the half-time whistle – you don’t need a fly-on-the-wall documentary crew in the dressing room to hazard a guess at what was said. However there was a different aura surrounding Mourinho as he beat his players down the tunnel this time; a look of determination and an actual willingness to turn things around flaming in his eyes.
This was in stark contrast to the Mourinho who entered the tunnel 2-0 down to West Ham the previous Saturday. It was the look of a man, perhaps, who knew his reputation was on the line. The rumours of Zinedine Zidane being approached and the Portuguese coach’s impending sacking regardless of last weekend’s result must have been brewing in the back of his mind as he entered the tunnel this time.
The second half saw the introduction of Mata, Fellaini and Sanchez who all played a part in United’s three goals. Pogba played arguably the best 45 minutes of his Premier League season, controlling the game and pinging passes around the pitch from the back line.
Everything seemed to go their way this time, as Newcastle struggled to hold on and eventually collapsed on the brink of the final whistle. Ironically, it was the suffering Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez, the smallest man on the pitch, who managed to nod home from a sumptuous right-wing cross from United captain Ashley Young. Reveries of “Fergie time” sprung to mind as Sanchez wheeled away in raucous celebration towards the Stretford End. For a brief moment, it was almost like watching the Manchester United of old.
Mourinho perhaps would have wanted to extract some invaluable momentum from this result, with his toughest test of the season arriving next at his former club Chelsea, but the international break may halter any form United could potentially generate. However, it does give the manager some additional time to think about his upcoming challenge, and have some clear the air talks with Ed Woodward without the distraction of his players, or any further Pogba vs Mourinho chatter.
Mourinho will aim to pick up a run of steam at Stamford Bridge, where a win would be an exceptional result, although a draw would also be a quite favourable return among United supporters – considering the club’s horrific record in West London. Although The Red Devils’ fixture list doesn’t get any easier, with challenges against Juventus arriving twice in the space of two weeks, Everton (home), Bournemouth (away), and a trip to The Etihad for the Manchester derby awaiting them afterwards.
This trip to Chelsea offers Mourinho the chance at a turning point in his Manchester United tenure, but he will need to find a way to stifle the attacking capabilities of an Eden Hazard at the peak of his career, and decipher a strategy which will unlock Chelsea’s bolstered defence, which has conceded just five goals in the league this season.
As entertaining as it was, Mourinho won’t be able to resort to the same last-ditch assault against Chelsea if things don’t initially go to plan. They would simply be ripped apart on the counterattack. Swap Shelvey for Jorginho, Kenedy for Hazard. Chelsea are a different animal, and one United should be competing with, but at the moment, seem a million miles away from.
Chelsea v Manchester United is setting up to be Mourinho’s most important game at the helm at Old Trafford. Ultimately, it could potentially make or break him. This will definitely be one to watch.