LONDON – The gamble had to pay off for Jose Mourinho and it did, or rather it has so far. The Manchester United manager had prioritized the Europa League over a top-four finish in the Premier League, and for someone who has made pragmatism an art form to roll the dice in such an all-or-nothing manner is out of character.
It could not have been closer, though. An unconvincing United drew 1-1 with Celta Vigo in the semifinal second leg at Old Trafford to win through 2-1 on aggregate. United’s goal was scored by Marouane Fellaini, ironically brought to the club by David Moyes who was roundly criticized for wasting £30 million on the Belgium international.
Mourinho had called the matchup with Celta “the biggest game in the club’s history,” and United now faces what is touted as the Louis van Gaal derby against the Dutchman’s former club Ajax in the final, which will presumably be “the biggest game in the club’s history, part 2.”
Mourinho’s dedication to preserving leads rather than extending them almost cost United a place in the final. Eric Bailly will miss the final after being sent off against Celta for lashing out at former Manchester City forward John Guidetti, who missed the mother of all sitters in stoppage time that would have won the tie for the Spaniards. Media praise for United was minimal following yet another, almost obligatory, home draw.
Success in the final in Stockholm and Mourinho will end his first season with United having guided it to winning the League Cup and the Europa League. Defeat, however, would see United back in the Europa League while probably finishing sixth in the Premier League, which would be seen as a huge underachievement given Mourinho’s reputation and the £150 million he spent in the transfer market last summer.
Van Gaal was sacked after he had won the F.A. Cup, which is more prestigious than the League Cup. Whatever United’s cup tally this season, its Premier League campaign has been underwhelming, with 20 points dropped at Old Trafford thanks to draws against, among others, Bournemouth, Hull, Stoke, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion.
United is 12 points behind Tottenham, which it plays on Sunday at White Hart Lane, where victory for the home side will secure second place.
On a personal level, Mourinho needs to reassert himself after Chelsea players downed tools last season. In fact, since winning the title with Chelsea in 2014-15, Mourinho has won just 22 of his 52 Premier League matches. Is the Special One losing his mojo? He remains a master of avoiding defeat, but his ability to win is diminishing, despite United’s Europa League progress.
In nine matches this season against the other teams in the Big Six, Mourinho’s United has scored only half a dozen goals and, with Sunday’s visit to White Hart Lane to come, it has not scored on the road against any of them. United’s Achilles heel has been its inability to score — its 51 goals in the Premier League is easily the lowest of the top seven clubs despite having Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to call upon.
The blame lies more with the manager than the players. Mourinho, especially in big games, traditionally sets his teams out not to lose rather than win. United has played what amounted to a back six against bigger teams in one-off matches, which has generally got Mourinho through, though nullifying the opposition is alien to the Reds’ traditions because it shows an inferiority complex.
Before last Sunday’s game against Arsenal, the points totals for those chasing third and fourth place were, at the time, Manchester City (78), United (77), Liverpool (76) and Arsenal (75).
Yet against Arsenal, Mourinho made eight changes from the first match against Celta, resting key players for Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford.
What’s more, he used Mkhitaryan and Mata, who are wide midfield players, as supplementary full-backs — the six-man defense was on show again. After the match, Mourinho admitted — not that he had to, because it was obvious from his team selection — he had conceded fourth position to focus on the Europa League.
It is difficult imagining Sir Alex Ferguson conceding anything to United’s main rivals as Mourinho did. The Portuguese claimed it was “a common-sense decision,” given United’s “17 matches in six weeks” (a schedule similar to all the European semifinalists) and injuries to Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Ibrahimovic. Many United fans were far from happy at the white flag being hoisted when a top-four finish was certainly within United’s grasp.
Like any manager, Mourinho would choose boring before losing, but the B-word was rarely heard much around Old Trafford before Ferguson’s retirement. United has been more functional than fanciful this season and Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness said: “I think they’re workman-like, very difficult to play against, very difficult to beat. I don’t think they get you on the edge of your seat. In my time in professional football, Man United would have been classed as the most entertaining team. This team isn’t that good.”
Maybe it isn’t, but it is one victory away from winning the Europa League, which carries a passport to the group stages of the Champions League. And, of course, United is also one defeat from another season in the Europa League, which Mourinho has admitted will be “because we are not good enough.”
Nice work if you can get it
It is difficult not to have a grudging admiration for Mino Raiola, who was paid a staggering £41 million from Paul Pogba’s transfer from Juventus to Manchester United last year.
The intermediary, as agents are now called, acted for the selling club, the buying club and the player — the ultimate three-card trick in a transfer. It wasn’t as if Raiola had to do a huge amount of work because United wanted to buy Pogba and Juventus wanted to sell the France international. No hard sell or convincing any of the parties.
Working for Juventus, which had bought Pogba from United for £1.5 million, Raiola obviously tried to get the highest price possible, not least because he was entitled to 50 percent of everything over £50 million. Representing United, Raiola’s contract stated that he should secure “terms acceptable to the club” — in other words, the lowest possible price. Pogba could not lose either way.
In the end, Juventus paid Raiola £22.8 million commission, United is due to give him £16.4 million over three years and Pogba handed the multi-millionaire middle man £2 million, though that was paid by United.
The buyer, seller and player were all happy, but none as delighted or as rich from the deal as super-intermediary Raiola.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.