The Big Match

Football: Mourinho facing reality check

A young fan of Manchester United FC shouts near a portrait of the coach Jose Mourinho during the match between FC Zorya Luhansk and Manchester United FC, on Dec 8, 2016.
A young fan of Manchester United FC shouts near a portrait of the coach Jose Mourinho during the match between FC Zorya Luhansk and Manchester United FC, on Dec 8, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Time for United boss to scale down ambitions as he aims to end sequence of league draws

Here's a Premier League fact: No champions have come from more than 12 points down to win the title.

Manchester United are 13 behind Chelsea now. They could be 16 adrift of the leaders by the time they kick off tomorrow.

It is why their ambitions must be downgraded. A top-four finish should be the aim, yet should Tottenham secure a third victory in five trips to Old Trafford, United will trail Mauricio Pochettino's side by nine.

This is a must-win match for a team who have drawn their last four home league games. Jose Mourinho believes United deserved to triumph in all four, but must now turn performances into results.

That used to be a strength of Mourinho's but a profligate team who have thrown points away scarcely seem Mourinho-esque.

In contrast, Tottenham, after a troubled spell, are looking like a Pochettino side again. They have scored eight goals in wins over Swansea and CSKA Moscow, recapturing their attacking spark.

It is no coincidence that Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli have returned to scoring form. With Harry Kane back to his best, Spurs have rediscovered their firepower.

They should also have freshness. They played on Wednesday, United on Thursday. They played in England, United in Ukraine.

Mourinho spared his first-choice full-backs, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia, the visit to Odessa, and the renaissance of Tottenham's wide men, coupled with the verve of their attacking full-backs, mean they could be busy.

The 35-year-old Michael Carrick was also omitted then, a clear sign he will start against his former club.

Other decisions are more complicated. Mourinho has alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, uniting the effective trio of Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba for the tougher tests. Tottenham should belong in that category, meaning the Portuguese can only pick two flair players to support Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan's glorious goal against Zorya Luhansk should earn him a start. Wayne Rooney's quest to equal Bobby Charlton's 249 goals could continue from the bench. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial may contest a place.

Mourinho has almost found his strongest side, just as United are putting together parts of a performance. While striking four times apiece at Old Trafford against Feyenoord and West Ham in other competitions, they have had 95 goal attempts in those four home draws, scoring just three.

They have taken leads and lost them; Everton's 89th-minute equaliser last week raised further questions about their game management. Mourinho's own temperament is under examination, too, after two red cards at Old Trafford.

His frustration is apparent as his team have not played to their potential. Do so, and they will inflict just Spurs' second league defeat.

Fail to, and they may be neither champions nor Champions League qualifiers.

MAN UNITED V TOTTENHAM

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Mourinho facing reality check'. Print Edition | Subscribe