By Richard Cann
I’d like to say that United are finally on the road to being ‘back’, but to be ‘back’ we’d have had to have gone somewhere in the first place. We were still here, just being run by incompetents. Thankfully, despite his one chastening season of disaster at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho appears not to be that, if losing once in 27 games, progressing serenely in Europe and winning the first of three cups the club remain involved in is anything to go by. On Saturday I took my two young daughters, 5 and 7, to Tescos. We’ve been a thousand times without anyone paying us any attention. This time, however, they decided to prance down the bread aisle singing “It’s Raining Men” at the top of their voices, whilst dancing provocatively (thanks VH1). The weekend shoppers certainly noticed us this time. It turned out to be a perfect metaphor for United. Not back, just loud, proud and very dangerous to know again.
For a week in which the team came ‘out’ as a genuine force again, the two matches played could not have been more contrasting. On Wednesday, in France, United took a 3-0 lead to St.Etienne and never looked like conceding a goal, let alone their advantage. This was a lesson in control, from first to last minute and once Henrikh Mkhitaryan had superbly toed Mata’s insane cross home everyone in the stadium knew the game was up. For added banter Eric Bailly was sent off rather harshly for two yellow cards, after which United proceeded to play better with ten men than eleven. It was by far the team’s most accomplished away performance since Moyes’ mob went freestyle in Leverkusen. Remember that? I bet Dave has a framed picture of Nani’s fifth goal hanging at the end of his bed. “Look what I could have done with more time. It was a SIX YEAR CONTRACT.” Fuck off Dave.
Anyway, United cruised through in a manner which was a far cry from the shambles that was LVG’s team in Europe, particularly away from home, and set us up for a tie with Rostov, seventh in the Russian Premier League and somewhere south east of Outer Mongolia. I jest, but it’s a long way, which is annoying as the Chelsea FA Cup tie falls four days later. C’est la vie. They made a decent fist of the Champions League group stage too, a narrow defeat at home to Atletico Madrid their first on their own pitch in well over a year. Fortunately the league table shows that they haven’t won away from home this season, so if United can keep things close in Russia having the second leg at Old Trafford should be a huge advantage. Given that a number of the more fancied teams in the competition (and Spurs) keep getting themselves knocked out and several more play each other in the next round of the competition, the draw appears to be opening up nicely for Mourinho.
Job done in France, so it was on to Wembley, for the League Cup final against Southampton, a team suffering a defensive injury crisis but also buoyed by the goals of January signing Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli. The Italian looks as surprised by his own prolific start to life on the south coast as the rest of us were that he signed for them in the first place. Well played Claude Puel. Mourinho’s team sheet contained a few surprises, not least his decision to play Marcos Rojo at left back, where I think it would be overly kind to describe him as an abomination. Jesse Lingard replaced the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Both parts of that sentence were a serious blow to United’s chances of winning.
Saints dominated possession and territory from early in the game, looking every inch the team who’d had nothing to do watch Television X and wank for two weeks, while United were touring the sights of Blackburn and south east France. Unsurprisingly Southampton scored, after Rojo got violated for the umpteenth time and a cross was turned in by Gabbiadini. Fortunately the standard of officiating in England this season has been nothing short of embarrassing, and referee Andre Marriner disallowed the goal for ‘offside’. If United won from there piss would be boiled the world over. Zing.
Amusingly, it was not long before Mourinho’s team were ahead. Zlatan, who has made a habit of punting free kicks into the faces of opposition players across the nation, actually got this one right and, thanks to Fraser Forster being slow to react, watched it sail into the net. A minor travesty. But not as much of a travesty as when Jesse Lingard made it 2-0, making his only worthwhile contribution to the game by receiving the ball completely unmarked on the penalty spot after a slick move and side-footing home. Jose looked furious.
Saints looked distraught. To their credit they didn’t wilt and continued to fly at United. Making half time with a 2-0 lead would be have been a huge psychological boost, but with Rojo and Smalling at the back and Eric Bailly being strangely dragged down to their level it wasn’t to be, Gabbiadini tapping a low cross under David De Gea. Rats cocks. To make matters worse, with the second half only a few minutes old, Paul Pogba headed a corner up in the air, it was headed back towards goal and Gabbiadini turned far too quickly for Smalling’s slow-mo brain to process and hooked home. Shitter. United looked knackered, Saints on a roll
Mourinho had brought Michael Carrick on for the anonymous Juan Mata at half time and reverted to a 4-3-3, which gave his team slightly more control of the game, but it was still Southampton who looked most dangerous, Romeo hitting the post with a header and Valencia just clearing an excellent cross. But Puel’s side couldn’t apply the knockout blow. Cue, four minutes from time, another rare piece of quality from United. Martial found Herrera free just inside the box on the right hand side. His cross was perfect for Ibrahimovic, who had peeled off his man, to power home a header. Bedlam. Martin Tyler ejaculated. I nearly did too. Saints were broken and could not respond. Huzzah.
A first trophy of the Mourinho era won in the most outrageously unjust manner possible, a banterous triumph guaranteed to make the urine of ABUs the nationwide bubble. The players were ecstatic, even Ibrahimovic, who spent a good thirty seconds bent over double on the half way line gasping for breath in injury time. I mean he’s 35 ffs. 35! In contrast to his players, Mourinho looked like someone had just run over his dog. Or his young daughters had just sung “It’s Raining Men” in Tescos. Maybe both. It’s guesswork of course, but it may have been a combination of the poor performance and a desire not to appear to be getting carried away with so much left to play for this season. Lighten up man. You’ve won your first trophy and have even more of an excuse to sell Chris Smalling in the summer.
Post-match Jose commiserated with Claude Puel, having already done the same earlier in the week for now ex-Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, a man he epically disrespected after replacing him at Chelsea. As ever, no shame. He also admitted that he didn’t know if Zlatan would stay at United next season, but implored the fans to go to the Swede’s house and beg/offer sexual services to make that happen. I have a theory that Ibrahimovic is afraid of being seen to decline and thus a more sedate league would prevent that, but 26 goals in 38 games should be enough to convince him that he can stretch to another season in the Premier League. G’wan Ibra, for the lads.
And so we have the first trophy of the Mourinho era, and what a catalyst it could be. Trophies breed trophies and non-titled players are now becoming accustomed to success. The League Cup may be the least prestigious domestic competition, but it was a 4-0 win over Wigan at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 which proved the catalyst for Sir Alex’s last great team to grow and ultimately conquer domestically and internationally. The seeds are being sewn for another successful era, although there is still much work to be done (we are, after all, still fucking sixth), but United are back to their piss-boiling best and it feels good.