Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

The return of Jose: A year after he was sacked Mourinho returns to Old Trafford with a point to prove

The Portuguese was sacked by Manchester United last December due to poor results and performances. He returns with his new team Tottenham in the ascendancy and out for revenge

A couple of weeks after Jose Mourinho’s stint at Manchester United began, this writer received a message from a club legend who had been in the frame for the job himself.

“We’ll win the league with Jose this year,” he wrote. Mourinho’s men had won their first two league games of 2016/17 and would win a third at Hull City. He was brought in to go head-to-head with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and he was doing just that. The global media interest around September’s 2016 derby game was like no other. City won at Old Trafford and United lost their next two games too. Mourinho’s title challenge ended before it had started. United haven’t mounted one since last winning the Premier League in 2013.

Mourinho, the man brought in as a guarantor of trophies, delivered two – three if you include the Community Shield - in his first season and finished second in the league in his second, but a title race never materialised before his stock plummeted in 2018. Champions League elimination after a limp display to Sevilla, a wretched end to the league season as Manchester City cantered off with the title, a poor FA Cup final, an even poorer start to the 2018/19 season and an increasingly unhappy, curmudgeonly manager did little to lift the mood. United fans wanted him gone and they got their wish a year ago. Mourinho himself admitted that United were probably right to dismiss him – he was in a cul-de-sac last December and had cut back on communicating with those around him. He felt several players were letting him down. They were.

United were poor in the league a year ago, yet they were still four points better off than they are now. United have won four of their 14 games so far, an appalling win rate and their worst league start since 1988/89 when they eventually finished 11th. Their next two games are at home to a Tottenham side managed by Mourinho and away to Manchester City on Saturday.

Mourinho has done at Spurs what he did at United: winning games immediately. Spurs have shot up the table which, given the inconsistency of so many teams, allows for that. They have qualified for the Champions League knockout stages too, and Dele Alli – a player who wanted to join United when Mourinho was there – has found form again. Mourinho has delivered to Spurs what Solskjaer did for United when he replaced the Portuguese.

After a year out, Mourinho now at his smiling and charming best, joking with journalists, inviting a bright young Spurs ball boy to the pre-match meal and winning football matches. He is brilliant when he is like this, a charismatic showman enchanting everyone around him. Will it last? History says no, but he has the chance to get revenge against United at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Spurs defeated United 3-0 in the equivalent fixture last season, one which angered Mourinho and saw him storm out of the post-match press conference shouting "Respect, respect, respect!" reminding journalists that he had won three Premier League titles to a combined total of two from every other manager in England's top flight. His position at United was unravelling and he never got back that bank of credit earned previously – not with the fans or his bosses.

Mourinho will not get a bad reception at Old Trafford. His name is unlikely to be be sung since United fans have enough of their own problems and their own players need all their support. He has returned since leaving the club with supporters singing his name when he is spotted sitting in the TV studio. He really enjoyed that. Old Trafford is respecting of current and previous managers – perhaps to a fault.

Mourinho has maintained a relationship with United’s executives since his departure, too. There’s no bad blood between them, though he received a vast pay off for his contract which had only been extended in January 2018. Mourinho’s party did feel slighted by comments made by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s management team that they had managed to bring harmony and lift spirits, but they were made in the flush of Solskjaer’s first of two winning months in charge. That flush has long since busted.

Mourinho will only create problems for himself and attract the negative chants he received when he was Chelsea manager if he reverts to his pantomime villain role. He is capable of that, but he is also a wily old fox who knows how to play the audience. When he brought his Real Madrid team to Old Trafford in 2013 he was full of flattery for United and Alex Ferguson – that after knocking them out of the European Cup in Ferguson’s final season after Nani’s red card. Ferguson was distraught, and Mourinho knew it.

Tottenham’s players have a further reason to feel vengeful. They laid siege to David de Gea’s goal in the last match between the teams, a January 2019 league meeting, yet lost 1-0 after heroics from the Spaniard. There haven't been enough of those since from United's goalkeeper.

Spurs look like they have turned a corner under their new boss; United are going around in circles and have been unable to win back-to-back league matches since March. Messages from the social media teams of individual players to overlook performances and look ahead to the next game are best left unrepeated. This isn’t the time for platitudes, just as it wasn’t a year ago.

There are similarities with a home game played the same week a year ago. With pressure growing on their manager after poor form, United played Arsenal at Old Trafford on a filthy early December evening. An erratic, entertaining, error-strewn game ended 2-2, with goals from Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Lingard hasn’t scored a league goal since last December, Martial remains maddeningly inconsistent.

United are miles off leaders Liverpool, Tottenham too. It’s a game between two teams who have failed so far this season, but it will be hard to look anywhere else in a full midweek of Premier League fixtures.

Tottenham have the superior team, one Mourinho has managed to get playing the type of football they are capable of. It is time Solskjaer, who maintains absolute conviction that he will sort out United’s mess over three or four transfer windows, did the same.

Updated: December 2, 2019 05:59 PM

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