Football: Top four still a tough ask, says Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho

United's Paul Pogba, with Jesse Lingard (far left) and Juan Mata in training. Manager Jose Mourinho has not held back in his criticism of his underachieving players in recent weeks.
United's Paul Pogba, with Jesse Lingard (left) and Juan Mata in training. Manager Jose Mourinho has not held back in his criticism of his underachieving players in recent weeks.PHOTO: REUTERS

United boss more upbeat ahead of Arsenal clash but says below-par side need good run

LONDON • Jose Mourinho has retracted his claim that Manchester United now need "a miracle" to finish in the Premier League's top four, but opted against making any firm predictions other than to say he was confident his team would finish above Everton.

United are currently in seventh place, below the Toffees on goal difference and eight points adrift of the Champions League qualifying places.

Although he was more downcast about their chances in an interview with Brazilian TV earlier in the week, the Portuguese sought to put a positive spin in his pre-match press conference yesterday, despite seemingly ruling the Red Devils out of the title race.

"I don't know if I said it or if I didn't, but if I used that word, it is not what I feel at all," the manager said ahead of the league match against in-form Arsenal today.

The Gunners are on a 19-game unbeaten run, but have not won away at United in the league since 2006.

They will miss the banned Granit Xhaka while Mesut Ozil is doubtful.

"We are eight or nine points from fourth. We need a good run of results, need to not waste points that we shouldn't waste," said Mourinho. "Last week, before the Crystal Palace game, my hopes and targets were, at the end of December, to be in that (top-four) position.

"The target changed (after successive draws with Palace and Southampton) but let's try to close the distance as best as we can. We need to perform better as a team, but it would be far from a miracle."

TOUGH BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE

The target changed but let's try to close the distance as best as we can. We need to perform better as a team, but it would be far from a miracle.

JOSE MOURINHO, United boss, who had earlier ruled out his team's chances of finishing in the top four, is now still hopeful they can turn things around.

United will have to take on Unai Emery's men with the squad's morale in question after Mourinho reportedly called Paul Pogba "a virus" during a post-match outburst following the 2-2 draw with the Saints on Saturday.

According to The Times, the atmosphere within the United dressing room has also soured over the past few weeks after he claimed, in a wide-ranging interview with former Bulgaria and Barcelona legend Hristo Stoichkov, that Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial lacked "character and personality".

However, Mourinho was his usual abrasive self when asked about his calling out of Pogba, telling reporters he did not "play the game of the suggest (sic)".

"I quoted one thing in an interview I gave to Brazilian TV that you can go there and see what I told. And another thing is to be quoted who or how. I don't play that game," he added.

The 55-year-old did concede that his players were underachieving although he was still hopeful they could turn their tepid form around, saying: "United should never be in seventh place... the investment Everton made (in the summer) was phenomenal and obviously, there was a great improvement in that team from last season.

"(But) I don't think Everton will be in front of United at the end of the season."

While United are looking to end their three-game winless streak in the league, they will have to do so without the banned Ashley Young while Shaw, Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are also doubtful.

And Mourinho knows he has a task on his hand against "a very good team in a good moment" in Arsenal, although his compliment was, in classic fashion, backhanded as he claimed the Europa League had enabled Emery "to give good rest to the players".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2018, with the headline 'Top four still a tough ask: Jose'. Print Edition | Subscribe