It could have been Mauricio instead of Jose

Above: Jose Mourinho is struggling to transform Man United into a team that wins with style, so much so that critics are calling him the "Special Once" instead of "Special One". Left: Mauricio Pochettino has earned admiration from former Man United m
Mauricio Pochettino has earned admiration from former Man United manager Alex Ferguson, but he insists he is not superior to Mourinho as a manager.PHOTO: REUTERS
Above: Jose Mourinho is struggling to transform Man United into a team that wins with style, so much so that critics are calling him the "Special Once" instead of "Special One". Left: Mauricio Pochettino has earned admiration from former Man United m
Jose Mourinho is struggling to transform Man United into a team that wins with style, so much so that critics are calling him the "Special Once" instead of "Special One". PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • When Tottenham Hotspur face the Red Devils today, Manchester United will come face to face with what could have been.

In May, former United manager Alex Ferguson and Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino had lunch in London, heightening speculation that the Argentinian would be the one to replace Louis van Gaal.

Instead, Jose Mourinho will be in the home dugout today while Pochettino - whom Ferguson calls "the best manager in the Premier League" - will occupy the visitors' technical area instead.

With 23 titles as a manager, it may be difficult to see why Mourinho, 53, goes into the clash with more to prove than his counterpart nine years his junior.

Yet the self-proclaimed "Special One" is increasingly being labelled as the "Special Once".

The former Chelsea manager has the unwanted record of leading two different teams to their worst-ever Premier League starts in consecutive seasons. United, mired in their worst start for 27 years, are six points behind Spurs.

The stunning form of Chelsea under new boss Antonio Conte - with 34 points from 14 games - has only deepened the gloom surrounding the Portuguese.

But Pochettino insisted that Mourinho is far superior to him.

"He was and will be one of the best managers in football history," said the Argentinian, who has only won once in 10 meetings against teams led by Mourinho.

"You cannot compare Mourinho with me. Mourinho is on the top. I am behind... He's in a period that maybe he needs time to improve and settle his ideas, (but I will not) change my image of him."

Mourinho has constantly pointed to the fact that he is adapting his style of play at United to maintain the club's tradition for attacking.

"We are not a team that defends and waits for an opponent's mistake," the former Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Porto coach said on Friday.

"I know (how) to build these teams. I did before by being very pragmatic.

"That is not something United fans and owners want, that is not something I want for this project, so we are going in a different direction and we are not going to change.

"I am used to a different kind of profile of my team, a team that score one goal and don't concede, a team very efficient and not in need of so much ball possession and control to have opportunities to score."

United are expected to welcome back key central defender Eric Bailly after he made his return from a knee injury in Thursday's 2-0 win over Zorya Luhansk in the Europa League.

Bailly's centre-back partner Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw remain out, but Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia could feature after being rested for the trip to Odessa.

Spurs will once again be without winger Erik Lamela, who remains in Argentina attending to his hospitalised brother, while striker Vincent Janssen has an ankle injury.

But Toby Alderweireld is in line to make his first start in eight weeks following a knee problem, having come off the bench in the Champions League win over CSKA at Wembley on Wednesday.

Jan Vertonghen, who is expected to partner his Belgium team-mate Alderweireld in central defence, is eager to show why United should have signed Pochettino when they had the chance.

"When the rumours were growing (in May) you were always worried, especially with this manager,' the centre back told the Evening Standard.

"If I were Manchester United, I would have tried to take him from us. Everyone can see what he is able to do with a team."

THE TIMES, LONDON , REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'It could have been Mauricio instead of Jose'. Print Edition | Subscribe