Jose Mourinho claims Chelsea clash is ‘just a game’ - but Manchester United must win or they can forget top four

Ed Malyon
The Independent
Mourinho claimed there was no extra significance in playing Chelsea: Getty
Mourinho claimed there was no extra significance in playing Chelsea: Getty

As it would turn out, the most incisive attack of Manchester United’s cold night in Brussels would come not from the visitors’ expensively-assembled frontline but rather their manager, who aimed stinging post-match criticism at his forward players.

One goal on the night, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s close-range effort from a rebound, was all that United could muster against the Belgians despite a performance of superiority. A late header handed Anderlecht an equaliser and a lifeline.

It is a familiar lament, and with just 19 goals in their last 11 games there is much for Mourinho to think about, especially with the visit of Chelsea on Sunday.

The Portuguese has tried to play down the importance of the clash with his former club, and well he might. Mourinho is a manager who feigns nonchalance but is endlessly obsessed with people’s perception of him. Building up a game against his former side, one who have improved so markedly since his departure, would be unwise given Antonio Conte’s men are such overwhelming favourites to pick up three more points in their title charge.

Last time they met, in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge, it was an emotionally-charged affair with touchline clashes, a red card and more joy for Conte’s Chelsea.

“You say that it was emotional… but for me,” Mourinho recalls, fooling absolutely no-one, “it was just a game.”

After a European night when Mourinho was frustrated by his side’s lack of killer instinct on the counter and the way his forward line repeatedly made poor decisions, the Portuguese cited Sunday’s Premier League opponents as a side who do things right – however much that pained him.

“It’s not for no reason that they are top of the league. It’s not just because they’re fresh but they have individual quality and they have collective quality. They have a certain style of play, they stick to it, they do it very well.

“Not every team defends with 11 players, they defend with 11 players. Not every team is objective in their counter-attacks. They are very objective in their counter-attacks and they have individual players who, outside the context of the game, can cause problems.”

Chelsea will be rested after a week off and they will be looking to take a step closer to the league title. United, Mourinho admitted, will continue to throw everything they have at the race for the top four until it is “mathematically impossible”.

As it stands, the feeling remains that winning the Europa League may be their best chance of Champions League qualification given their frustrating tendency to turn wins into draws.

United have drawn 14 games this season, 10 of those 1-1 and six of those after leading 1-0. You can fairly say that they were unfortunate to be sucker-punched in Brussels but when the sample size is much bigger it is not written off quite so easily.

God forbid anyone blame the coach but is it not the responsibility of him and his staff to improve these young forwards, teaching them when and where to make what decisions? And what of his latest negative substitution, bringing on Marouane Fellaini for his most dangerous attacking player, Marcus Rashford, with 15 minutes to go?

Mourinho said the draw with Anderlecht was a good result (Getty)
Mourinho said the draw with Anderlecht was a good result (Getty)

United were suddenly shorn of their pace on the counter in exchange for what should have been midfield reinforcement. But the Belgian international, whose every touch was met by a chorus of jeers, was nowhere to be seen as Leander Dendoncker ghosted in to net the equaliser five minutes from time.

Mourinho cannot afford to be so negative at Old Trafford on Sunday, playing against a side who are fresher, faster and stronger. Indeed, even a draw would feel insufficient as they hunt down Manchester City and Liverpool, but a tough fixture list suggests the top four may still be beyond them.

It is “just a game,” Mourinho insisted, and yet it feels like it could be the defining game in their season.

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