MANCHESTER — Jose Mourinho not only lives for these kind of backs-to-the-walls situations. He usually delivers in them.
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He did it again on Sunday as his Manchester United side out-thought and outfought Chelsea, a team he often led to thrive in this type of situations over two spells in charge in west London.
With a UEFA Europa League quarterfinal sandwiched either side of the clash against Chelsea, Mourinho shocked many by having Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the bench. Such has been United’s wastefulness in front of goal in recent months, securing a place in the UEFA Champions League by winning Europe’s second-tier title has all of a sudden become more attainable than finishing in the top four of the Premier League. At least it did before United’s huge victory against Chelsea as they’re only four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand.
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Mourinho’s gameplan involved playing two up front with Jesse Lingard partnering the excellent Marcus Rashford who gave Chelsea a horrendous afternoon, plus he ordered a textbook man-marking job to shut down Eden Hazard.
His gameplan worked perfectly and Mourinho was a happy man for many reasons when talking about the victory which not only blew the title race wide-open but also reignited United’s top four hopes.
“The satisfaction is for different reasons. The first with Liverpool and Man City victories if we don’t win, goodbye Premier League. These three points were phenomenal,” Mourinho beamed. “The second is they are the leader. When you beat the leader it is obviously a very good feeling. For me, from my perspective as a manager that prepares the team and the gameplan I had the feeling before this match but now totally convinced, with 11 players at Stamford Bridge in the second game [1-0 FA Cup defeat in March] we would be playing against Tottenham at Wembley this weekend.”
In that FA Cup game Mourinho referenced, Herrera was sent off in the first half for two cynical fouls as he, and most of United’s players, got too close to Hazard.
Mourinho deployed Herrera on Hazard in a man-marking job on Sunday and it worked perfectly with the Spaniard also having an assist and a goal, even if the latter looked to have come courtesy of an interception with his hand.
Asked if other teams have simply accepted Chelsea were superior in recent months, Mourinho is happy with how his team stuck to the gameplan he devised and revealed exactly where he targeted the team who cast him aside last season after also doing so in 2007 with this three PL titles in west London not enough to save him.
“I don’t know what to say. We have different teams different players, maybe it is difficult for some managers to find Ander Herrera to do the job he did today. Maybe it is difficult for some to find Matteo Darmian to play the role he played,” Mourinho said. “I want to say I was convinced even before the cup that controlling the two players that play behind Diego, Hazard and sometimes Pedro or Willian, and controlling the full-backs because they go really deep with two wide men would create lots of problems and I repeat the same. They are phenomenal in counter-attack. When they tried to play counter attack we were always in control of these two link positions. We did that at Stamford Bridge when we played with 11. Today we control.”
United had total control throughout this encounter as Chelsea failed to have a shot on target and Mourinho’s old team started to show that cracks are appearing as Tottenham hunt them down in the Premier League title race.
Far from vintage for most of this season, it is easy to forgot Mourinho’s United are now 22 games unbeaten in the league.
That’s the best current unbeaten run in Europe’s top five leagues as their character is building, even if some pieces of the jigsaw are yet to slot perfectly into place.
“Normally you win the title if you are 22 matches unbeaten and we are struggling to finish top four,” Mourinho laughed. “Everybody knows why because we drew too many matches at home and we are paying the price. It is a great feeling to know it is difficult for us to lose a match. We fight until the end. We score last minute here against Everton and Liverpool and away at Stoke. We need a little more quality and different qualities in some positions to make the squad stronger but in terms of character and the human side I have one of the best groups ever.”