MANCHESTER — Jose Mourinho and Manchester United spoiled Manchester City’s party on Saturday and Paul Pogba was the main party pooper in the astonishing 3-2 comeback win.
With Man City needing a win in the Manchester Derby to seal the earliest title win in top-flight history, things were going swimmingly for Pep Guardiola as the runaway league leaders were 2-0 up at half time and it could have been more.
Then Pogba took over.
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United’s club-record signing scored twice in the space of three minutes to turn the game on its head in what has been a testing week for him off the pitch. Guardiola claimed on Friday that Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, offered the French midfielder to Man City in January along with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, suggesting Mourinho and United were ready to offload their $130 million star a few months ago.
Asked about Pogba’s reaction to Guardiola’s comments, here’s what Mourinho told reporters after the game.
“I was impressed but I don’t know because I didn’t even speak with him about what Pep said or what Raiola said. I didn’t speak. I’m not interested if it was Pep or Mino was right. I am not interested in that,” Mourinho said. “I know that Paul played well against Swansea and Paul had a very good week of work, especially Tuesday and Wednesday, he had two fantastic training sessions. This game comes in that segment. Of course, two goals, for a midfield player, especially in a big match like this one, stays in the memory of the people. Especially for the fans. It stays and he needs that confidence because he knows, I know, everybody knows, he had some performances not at the level of expectations we have from Paul. But he’s improving. Against Swansea I was happy and today he, Matic and Herrera, I think they were phenomenal for 90 minutes.”
Pogba was struggling, like all of United’s players, in the first half as an under strength City (Pep rested Kyle Walker, Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and others with one eye on the UCL quarterfinal second leg against Liverpool on Tuesday) turned on the class and tore them to shreds. Raheem Sterling missed two sitters when City lead 2-0 and they should have been out of sight by half time.
Yet the way Pogba helped United get back into the game with his forward runs and clinical finishing, plus grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck with his powerful tackling and aggression, proved he still has plenty left in the tank. Maybe Pep’s words were the final kick up the backside Pogba needed after talk of a rift with Mourinho and being benched several times since the turn of the year for lackluster performances had threatened to derail his United return.
This was the Pogba who turned it on for Juventus in the Champions League at City in the past to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win for Juve. This was the Pogba United paid all of that money for and were supposed to build their team around.
So, what sparked his second half resurgence?
Mourinho was asked what he told his players at half time to inspire such an incredible turnaround.
“I told my midfield players that they didn’t need to improve because they were playing very well, even in the first half. All of them. I think it is very difficult to be a midfield player against Manchester City,” Mourinho said. “Paul, Ander [Herrera] and [Nemanja] Matic were playing really well but I needed more from [Jesse] Lingard and Alexis [Sanchez]. I need them to connect our good football in midfield and especially I need my defenders to be a little more confident. With just a little bit of pressure from City they were kicking the ball, they were nervous, they were not bringing the ball with quality to my midfielders.”
With the win United cut the gap to PL leaders Man City to 13 points and although they aren’t going to catch them and stop City winning the title, they did at least stop them on Saturday.
City’s fans dreamed of winning the title on their home patch against their bitter rivals and rubbing Mourinho face in it.
That didn’t happen as United’s players, led by Pogba, stood tall just when City threatened to embarrass them.