Jose can be first United boss to win Cup in debut season

Jose Mourinho won the League Cup in the opening year of both of his two spells as Chelsea manager.
Jose Mourinho won the League Cup in the opening year of both of his two spells as Chelsea manager.PHOTO: AFP

Jose Mourinho's reign at Manchester United began in earnest at Wembley. He left August's Community Shield with a trophy, yet as he returns, he may recall other fine beginnings.

He won the League Cup in the opening year of both of his two spells as Chelsea manager. In each case, it proved the prelude to greater success. He could complete an auspicious beginning in his debut campaign at Old Trafford.

It would also secure him a rare distinction.

While Mourinho and David Moyes lifted the Community Shield, no United manager has won major silverware in his first season. It would give the Portuguese a distinction even Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby lacked and set United on their way to a potential Cup treble.

United have both form and finer players. They are 18 points ahead of a Southampton side who have lost three of their last four games. They are hot favourites.

But then they were the last time these two clubs contested a final. The Saints were a second-division side then, but nevertheless won the 1976 FA Cup.

Bobby Stokes' strike may have been offside but it remains the most treasured goal in Southampton's history. It earned them their only major honour.

The chances of a sequel may rest with a rearguard who have negotiated five games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Sunderland and Crystal Palace in the League Cup without conceding.

With Jose Fonte sold and Virgil van Dijk injured, an iron defence excelled at Anfield in the semi-final second leg and Claude Puel has to ask for another display of defiance from second-string centre-backs.

This final could be decided by who copes better with absentees. Southampton are also without top scorer Charlie Austin.

Mourinho perhaps fielded too strong a side against Saint-Etienne on Wednesday and lost Michael Carrick and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to injuries.

The Armenian seemed a certainty to start. Now a place has opened up: Potentially for Marouane Fellaini, if United play 4-3-3, or maybe both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will begin with Juan Mata slotting in as a No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Whichever, the onus is likely to fall on United to attack. Puel's three midfielders are likely to be stationed directly in front of the back four. His teams often attack with only three players.

It worked at Anfield where Nathan Redmond exploited space on the flanks. That may mean Antonio Valencia has a difficult balancing act, needing to get forward without leaving too much space behind him.

Yet Southampton are very much outsiders. They have two wins in four games against United, but those were with superior players. They lost 0-2 in a one-sided August game and Mourinho's outstanding record in finals - winning 10 out of 12 since 2003 - should be extended.

It could be the start of something, for him and for United.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2017, with the headline 'Jose can be first United boss to win Cup in debut season'. Print Edition | Subscribe