Heart Of Football

Mourinho wants Kroos but Toni is likely to pass

The murmur around Manchester this past week is that David de Gea has been "flashing his gloves" again at Real Madrid.

The phrase means that de Gea, United's best player of 2014, 2015 and 2016, is feeling homesick for Madrid once more. Or just sick and tired at being made to take his turn in Jose Mourinho's vituperative blame game at Old Trafford.

De Gea missed last weekend's game at Sunderland, and the mid-week game against Anderlecht. The second one is not significant because the understudy, Argentina's Sergio Romero, has been the Red Devils' regular Europa League keeper.

However, while Mourinho alluded to a minor hip ailment as the reason his No. 1 missed the Sunderland trip, sources around the Bernabeu suggest that the transfer that broke down on deadline day two years ago has been rekindled.

De Gea has four more years on his United contract. But his girlfriend, model Edurne Garcia, prefers life in Madrid.

And since Real Madrid president Florentino Perez never likes to be beaten once he has thrown his cap towards a particular star player, there could well be substance to the rumour that just will not go away.

Man United are where they were under David Moyes, and slightly behind where they were under Louis van Gaal. They cannot crack the top four. Indeed, after 30 league games Moyes had won 15, van Gaal 17, and Mourinho 15. Rob Hughes

Mourinho and de Gea share the same agent. And even though de Gea, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has been the least of United's worries in this underachieving first season of Mourinho's in Manchester, there is a deal the manager would like to bring off.

The stories in last week's Champions League were mainly about Paulo Dybala's beautiful brace of goals for Juventus against Barcelona. Those goals rocketed Dybala in many people's mind to the level of Lionel Messi.

Superb finishes that they were, and quick and elegant as Dybala is in full stride, one might suggest that at 23 he has a lot of catching up to do to equal what Messi achieved at that age, let alone what the five-time Ballon D'Or winner has matured into.

They are both from Argentina, leave it at that.

In any case, the Old Lady of Juventus last Thursday tied up Dybala to a new five-year contract. (Although we know from the Paul Pogba saga that Juve are quite smart in securing ownership of a player only to extract a higher price when United come calling).

Pogba's erratic season, however, might point us to the player that Mourinho would really like in part or full exchange for de Gea.

If you saw all the Champions League games last week, the outstanding performer was arguably Toni Kroos.

Statistics do not make a player or even a performance. But the Kroos control during Madrid's 2-1 away win at Bayern Munich last Wednesday was everything that Mourinho seeks in a team.

The German achieved 92 per cent accuracy with the passes he attempted. Most of those were forward, most found a man, and all had the unhurried hallmark with which Kroos had played, and won, trophies with Bayern, with Real and of course with Germany at the 2014 World Cup.

Born in East Germany nine months before the Wall fell, Kroos exudes a calm, almost a dispassionate influence on not just any old team, but on serial winners of the biggest prizes in his sport.

So, Mourinho might ask the question of Real Madrid, but why on earth would Perez, his coach Zinedine Zidane, even contemplate letting Kroos go?

And why would Kroos, having gone half way towards eliminating his former club, give a moment's thought to exchanging what he has in Madrid for a United team that is a long way off reclaiming old glories?

The reality behind Man United v Chelsea today, apart from being Mourinho's present against his past, is measured by one thing: He will pick a line-up this evening with the Europa League second leg against Anderlecht very much in mind.

The Europa League. That is Europe, second class. It matters to Mourinho and to Manchester United for one reason. It is the last hope that United has to find a way into next season's Champions League.

As it stands, Man United are where they were under David Moyes, and slightly behind where they were under Louis van Gaal.

They cannot crack the top four.

Indeed, after 30 league games Moyes had won 15, van Gaal 17, and Mourinho 15.

More damaging than that, Mourinho's United is so anaemic at Old Trafford. He has managed an unbeaten run of 21 Premier League matches since the 4-0 thrashing by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last October - but there are 12 draws in that run.

United, reduced from the devil-may-care swashbuckling of Alex Ferguson, has become Mourinho's solid rock of stubbornness. The Old Trafford faithful have seen only six home wins in the league this season, the worst since 1974.

Mourinho has blamed everybody, from Luke Shaw to Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and now de Gea. But the fans can see with their own eyes that the build-up is too slow, the lack of incisive passing (of Kroos-like vision) simply allows opponents to get back in front of their goal without trouble.

"We don't kill matches," has become a mantra where Ferguson used to order "Go for their bloody throats."

The Chelsea that almost sunk under Mourinho a year ago started this weekend seven points ahead of the field, and 18 points in front of United.

Antonio Conte has revitalised Mourinho's former, failing Blues. And to those who say that it was "easy" for Conte because Chelsea do not have the distraction of European competition this season, the irony is that the man most responsible for that is the United manager.

His presence today cannot fail to inspire Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, David Luiz and company, although they have a different incentive to go for the points at Old Trafford.

Chelsea are the born-again favourites to land the trophy that Mourinho, in happier times, helped them to win.

He says today is not a special match to him. Believe that if you will.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Mourinho wants Kroos but Toni is likely to pass'. Print Edition | Subscribe