MANCHESTER, England — The presence of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford revived memories of much better times at Manchester United, when England’s biggest club had a slew of the world’s best players and no trophy felt beyond them.
[ MORE: Is something amiss with Romelu Lukaku? ]
It was only a decade ago, after all, that United was winning the Champions League and three straight Premier League titles. Ronaldo was the poster boy of the generation that included Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes.
So, the manner of United’s 1-0 loss to Juventus in the Champions League — and the nature of Jose Mourinho’s comments after Tuesday’s match — were stark reminders of just how far the team has fallen.
“Since the draw,” Mourinho said, “we knew it would be a fight with the Valencia for the second position.”
They were remarkable remarks from the manager of a club as huge as United, and it felt like Mourinho’s team took that inferiority complex into the game against Juventus.
United’s players looked in awe of their opponents — left back Luke Shaw acknowledged as much, saying his team gave Juventus “too much respect” — and had only 28 percent of the possession in the first half. United had only two shots on target in the whole match.
Yet Mourinho wasn’t finished there. In lavishing high praise on Juventus and the Italian club’s re-emergence as one of Europe’s top clubs, he also appeared to be sending a thinly veiled message to United’s board.
“A bit far,” Mourinho said, when asked how far United was behind Juventus. “Juventus is (Italian) champion for seven years in a row, two Champions League finals in the last four or five years and not happy with what they have. They want more, they want more.
“They had (Gonzalo) Higuain, (Mario) Mandzukic, (Paulo) Dybala, they want more. They want Ronaldo. They had (Andrea) Barzagli, (Giorgio) Chiellini, (Daniele) Rugani, they are not happy, they want more, they want (Leonardo) Bonucci. And they go for the best players in the world. A big, big club with a big past, but with also a big desire to have a big future.”
Just like the United of yesteryear.
Mourinho said his team, essentially, was no longer in the same league as Europe’s powerhouses.
“To go to Juventus level? Barcelona level? Real Madrid level? How can we reach that level?” Mourinho asked reporters, adding: “Man City level? How can we reach that level?”
A reply came. “Investment?”
“Yes,” Mourinho said.
Yet he had just put out a team containing a center forward costing $97 million (Romelu Lukaku), a center midfielder costing a then world-record fee of $116 million and signed from Juventus (Paul Pogba), while an offseason signing for about $70 million (Fred) was on the bench, failing to make it on as a substitute.
Mourinho has spent more than $500 million on players since joining United in 2016. Either the money hasn’t been spent well or Mourinho isn’t getting enough out of them.
Lukaku, for example, has gone eight games without a goal and looks short of confidence playing for United.
“No criticism at all, and a complete understanding that the player is a fantastic professional that wants to give everything for the team,” Mourinho said. “But I have to agree his moment is not sweet, not just with the goals he is not scoring but in his confidence, movement, touch. He is not linking the game well with the team.
“But he’s our striker and a good striker and a striker we believe in.”
Mourinho finished the game by responding to the goading of Juventus’ fans by holding up three fingers toward them, denoting the Champions League-Serie A-Italian Cup treble he won with Inter Milan — Juve’s rival — in the 2009-10 season.
Just three days earlier, he was sticking three fingers up at Chelsea fans who were hurling abuse at him at Stamford Bridge, a reminder of the three Premier League titles he won at the London club over two spells.
Mourinho continues to hark back to his trophy-laden past.
It’s the future he and United have to worry about.