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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Trip to Everton amounts to a damage-limitation exercise for Jose Mourinho's Manchester United

Manager believes fortune has deserted his side following three successive draws. With injuries mounting, it seems a fourth is as much as United are hoping for at Goodison

A ball boy passes the ball to Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho during the 0-0 draw against Southampton at Old Trafford. Clive Mason / Getty Images
A ball boy passes the ball to Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho during the 0-0 draw against Southampton at Old Trafford. Clive Mason / Getty Images

The problem, Jose Mourinho insisted, is fortune, not form. It is outcome, not process which is the issue. The decisions that have proved costly, he argued, have come from referees, rather than his players and him. His, he insisted, is an impartial analysis of Manchester United’s difficulties at a time when he feels that injuries and officials have inadvertently combined to conspire against them.

United go to Everton on Monday with a 100 per cent record over the Christmas and New Year period: three games, three draws. They have been held by Leicester City, Burnley and Southampton. They have dropped six points and slipped behind Chelsea. They are third in a two-horse race, looking anxiously over their shoulders as the chasing pack.

“For sure,” admitted defender Phil Jones, "it’s obvious if you look at the table. It’s frustrating for us, frustrating for everyone involved but there’s no point sulking about it.”

One interpretation is that Mourinho has been sulking as it has become increasingly apparent that United will not catch Manchester City. He nevertheless sought to exacerbate the positives from a run of unwanted consistency.

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“Three draws are different than three defeats,” he said. “The difference is just three points but in terms of the mental state of the defeat and the draw makes a difference. We need to improve the results, not the performance.”

Whereas Jones stated: “I don’t like using the word ‘unlucky,’” it was precisely the one Mourinho deployed to describe his emotions. “I feel unlucky, yes,” he said. The Portuguese cited penalty appeals that have been rejected. “I could be here with a biased theory, which I am not going [to do] at all,” he explained. “I am happy with the refereeing performances in these matches and what are just unlucky decisions. You have to be biased against us to say that the penalty against City and Leicester and Southampton were not penalties.”

Not every outsider echoes that view about Ander Herrera’s claim for a spot kick against City but a more immediate issue is a shortage of strikers for the trip to Goodison Park. There is no Romelu Lukaku, scorer of 87 goals in four years at Everton, meaning the £75 million (Dh372m) man cannot trouble his former club, and no Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose comeback from a cruciate knee ligament injury was interrupted by a setback.

United’s other old Evertonian Marouane Fellaini is another attack-minded player on the sidelines, while the absentees also include Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia. They could be joined by Ashley Young, should the English Football Association rule a sly elbow on Dusan Tadic, which went unpunished at the time – a refereeing decision that went in United’s favour, contrary to Mourinho’s theory – merits a three-match ban.

“We lost Lukaku, we lost Ibrahimovic for a month,” lamented the United manager. “To lose him for a month means he stops his run to the recovery. We lose Lukaku, I don't know for how long. I don't remember the last time Fellaini played. It was a long time ago.”

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His options are limited at a time when the fixture list is most crowded. Goodison Park, where United have lost on three of their last five visits, has been something of a bogey ground for them of late.

“We have difficulty now to rotate players,” Mourinho said. “The fact that we don't play League Cup semi-final is a good thing for us. We have no players to play these two possible extra matches in January. Now we have to cope with Everton and Derby [in Friday’s FA Cup tie].”

In the meantime, Everton amounts to a damage-limitation exercise for Mourinho. And his reign was meant to be about much more than simply limiting damage.

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