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Can Mourinho unravel the City mystery?
The embodiment of everything good about the beautiful game versus the enemy of football. Swagger in attack versus the proverbial bus, parked in defence. Perhaps more strikingly, the neutrals usually only want one of them to win, when facing each other and in the season overall. Whenever Pep Guardiola’s team is pitted against Jose Mourinho’s men, these are the comments that are often branded about by journalists and fans alike. I don’t even have to mention which phrase corresponds to which manager, you all can already match those up in your mind. For all the negative press Manchester United have received with regards to their tactics in some games this season, they have been the second-best team in England so far this season. The big question is whether they can nullify the best team in Europe (questionable, but it certainly seems that way so far) on Sunday and more than that, actually be the first team in the Premier League to defeat them this season?
This challenge is something Mourinho has faced in his career before with Guardiola in the opposition dugout. While Guardiola was “restoring the chapel that Johan Cruyff had created” at Barcelona, Mourinho managed both Inter Milan and Real Madrid in that time. It is widely thought that the Barcelona team in that period was not only the best in the world, but also one of the best sides in history. Many sides, including Manchester United struggled to solve the puzzle that was the team from Catalonia. Despite Mourinho suffering his heaviest defeat in one of his battles with Barcelona in that period, he was on the victorious sides a number of times. What was characteristic of those teams that he had put together? Patrick Vieira put it down to one key reason. “Acceptance that the other team is better, but not necessarily the winning team.” Every player bought into the philosophy of the gameplay, focussed on astute defence and exhilarating counter attacks that would have devastating effects. Even creative players like Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Ozil would curb their natural instincts for the benefit of the team. This and more will be needed on Sunday afternoon because the attacking talents of Manchester City are almost endless. As difficult as a task it may seem, Mourinho has a history of getting it right on the big occasion to get the result he wants. Of course, he has also got it spectacularly wrong on occasions. One thinks of the tempestuous Champions League semi-final at the Bernabeu, where Mourinho’s focus was more on the mind games rather than actually winning the game. However, with the team he is facing only being across the city, you would expect Mourinho to not be so delusional this time around.
Just yesterday, Henry Winter stated that Mourinho “has a duty to attack City” on Sunday’s top of the table clash. While this perception is shared by many fellow journalists and pundits alike, is this really true? The angle that people come from is to do with the tradition of Manchester United and the “glory days” of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. Edge of the seat stuff was characteristic of his brilliant teams. However, I don’t know whether people have noticed, that was more than four years ago. They say a week is a long time in football, four years is an astronomical amount of time. As much as the board of the club and the loyal fanbase would not like to believe, it comes down to one simple thing. Manchester United are not the best team in England anymore, let alone Europe. Mourinho said in an interview to Rio Ferdinand last season that he always gets a team in trouble that he has to rebuild. This is arguably the biggest rebuilding job he has faced in his career and to take the team from where he found them has been remarkable. People will point to the huge investment that has been made, but in actual fact, Mourinho is only compensating for the players that should have been bought years ago. Manchester United do not have a divine right to play attractive football that is free-flowing and expansive. Like everyone else, the only thing that they will want to do is win games of football. Now, there are certain styles which are more aesthetically pleasing to watch. There is a common misconception that Mourinho’s teams just sit back and wait to pounce on mistakes. However, in all of his signature teams, there has been a combination of strength, creativity and ruthlessness at the helm. These qualities used to be attractive to a lot of people previously, but now many people seem to be happy to jump on the bandwagon to say Mourinho is the manager that tries to kill football. On Sunday, he must stick to his guns and stay with what his served him best over the majority of his career if he is going to have any chance of beating Manchester City. Not that Mourinho cared about what people thought of him, but he should look to maximise the qualities of the team he has in his hands.
As we are eagerly awaiting the moment when the two best teams in the country face off, Mourinho will be saying it is simply another game out of the 38 in the league. Yes, another game but if he and his side deliver at Old Trafford, the title race will be well and truly on once again.