Jose Mourinho chose the carrot and stick approach on Wednesday as the Manchester United manager, fresh from overseeing the club’s best performance of the post-Ferguson era, sought to ensure motivation remained high ahead of his team’s biggest game of the season.
On the one hand, Wayne Rooney was told he could still have a part to play during the run-in, Sergio Romero encouraged to believe he can challenge David De Gea for the No 1 jersey and Zlatan Ibrahimovic reminded about the “beautiful” prospect of playing a final in his native Sweden next month.
On the other, Anthony Martial was left in no doubt that he needed to start doing as he was told if he wanted to realise his potential and Henrikh Mkhitaryan offered a subtle reminder that he must replicate his impressive Europa League form in the Premier League.
The 2-0 victory over leaders Chelsea on Sunday may have given United a welcome shot in the arm after a sequence of draws but Mourinho gave the impression that it would count for little if his side fail to prevail against Anderlecht in the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final at Old Trafford on Thursday evening.
The Belgians claimed a last-gasp 1-1 draw in the first leg last week and Mourinho was adamant his team would not be playing for the goalless draw that would guarantee their progress on away goals. The Chelsea game, he said, had provided the benchmark.
“I always think that football is a lot about the motivation levels and of course playing the leaders [Chelsea] is always a challenge,” Mourinho said. “We reached that level of concentration and intensity against Chelsea, especially because we started from minute one. We had periods in some matches at Old Trafford but we had more in the last 20 minutes than the beginning.
“The first thing [against Anderlecht] is to have the motivation high. I think at a big club like Manchester United, probably when you start the Europa League, you don’t have that motivational high in September and October. But when you get to this level the motivation has to be very high. You must at least equal Anderlecht’s motivation.”
Romero has been told he will start in goal but one player uncertain to be on the substitutes’ bench, let alone in the starting XI, is Martial, who was given another warning in a season of plentiful reprimands and told to take a leaf out of Marcus Rashford’s book after being left out of the squad against Chelsea.
“The same way I know what the players like, I think they also know what I like,” Mourinho said. “The same way I have to go in the direction of the players, the players they have also to come in my direction.
“That’s why Marcus Rashford, even without scoring goals, even without being since September with a goal in the Premier League, even without that he was always a player that I trust, always a player that I play, always a player that I support.
“Because he was always coming in my direction, in the direction I want from a player, what I want as a Manchester United player. Do I think Anthony is a player with great potential? Yes I think. Do I think he can play successfully for me? Yes I think. But he needs to give me things I like very much.”
There were more reassuring words for Rooney, who has become a virtual outcast since the turn of the year and is almost certain to be sold in the summer, even if they were damned with faint praise.
Mourinho said he would include the England captain in his 18-man squad if he sees “something positive” in training and told the player he remains in his thoughts.
“If we need a goal he can help us,” Mourinho said. “We don’t have many players. We lost players in the January market, we didn’t bring anyone, we lost players in the international week. We need everyone we can. Hopefully he can be a help.”