From mediocre to monster

Paul Pogba's two-star hairstyle celebrates France's World Cup triumph last month but his performance on Friday was undoubtedly five stars.
Paul Pogba's two-star hairstyle celebrates France's World Cup triumph last month but his performance on Friday was undoubtedly five stars.PHOTOS: REUTERS, EPA-EFE
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho with Pogba as he leaves the pitch after being replaced by Marouane Fellaini in the 84th minute.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho with Pogba as he leaves the pitch after being replaced by Marouane Fellaini in the 84th minute. PHOTOS: REUTERS, EPA-EFE
Pogba, captain for the match, coolly putting United ahead from the penalty spot after three minutes.
Pogba, captain for the match, coolly putting United ahead from the penalty spot after three minutes.PHOTOS: REUTERS, EPA-EFE

Mourinho switches tack and praises Pogba after Frenchman stars in win over Leicester

LONDON • Jose Mourinho has labelled Paul Pogba a "monster" just days after the media reported a fractious relationship between the duo which led to news that the midfielder wants a move to Barcelona.

But it was more praise than criticism, as the Manchester United manager hailed the Frenchman's willingness to put his body on the line to lead the team to a winning start in the Premier League with a 2-1 victory over Leicester on Friday.

Less than a month since Pogba scored in the World Cup final to help France lift the trophy, he was thrown straight into action by Mourinho despite just returning to pre-season training this week.

"Pogba was a monster," said Mourinho. "We thought maximum (he could play) 60 minutes, but he managed (more than) 80."

Pogba's third-minute spot kick settled the hosts' nerves, as United allayed some of the doom and gloom predicted by Mourinho after failing to land a series of targets before Thursday's transfer deadline.

Luke Shaw sealed the points seven minutes from time before Jamie Vardy bundled home a consolation for the visitors.

"Paul was fantastic, his contribution was amazing but the fuel was disappearing. We were in trouble," added Mourinho, who had several first-team players either out injured or still lacking match fitness following their post-World Cup break.

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"It was not a hard decision (to start Pogba), the decision was down to him. With Ander Herrera injured, I had only two options, Scott McTominay or Pogba.

"If I played Scott, I would have two kids (including Andreas Pereira) and a new player (Fred) in midfield. So I asked Paul and he put himself forward for the team and was very, very good for us."

After a week in which Pogba was linked with a move away from Old Trafford, with Barcelona's interest piqued by his frosty relationship with Mourinho after he was repeatedly dropped last season, the Portuguese also showed his faith in the midfielder by surprisingly handing him the captain's armband.

Perhaps it was the best example of how much Mourinho values Pogba, even though he has blamed the 25-year-old for his muted performances for United since his move two years ago.

In particular, the manager has criticised Pogba for not playing at the same level for his club as he does for his country - implying he had been distracted by outside matters such as commercial contracts.

The player was said to be unhappy with the comments and he even posted a cryptic message on Instagram after the game.

"I'll always give my best to the fans and my team-mates no matter what's going on," he wrote.

However, he also said in a post-match interview that he is still hungry to win trophies at United.

"We should start the Premier League with a win and we did," he said. "Winning the World Cup is in the past. I like challenges, I want to progress and win more trophies."

Despite the win, Mourinho made no secret of his disappointment over the club's transfer business in the close season.

"I had my plans for many months and I find myself with the market closed in a situation I did not think I would be in," he said.

"I think football is changing and managers are more head coaches than managers."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 12, 2018, with the headline 'From mediocre to monster'. Print Edition | Subscribe