Jose Mourinho was quick with the fighting talk after Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea left his team eight points adrift of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, but were they merely hollow words on the day that the title race as good as ended?
No championship has ever been won in November, but a few aspirations have gone up in smoke at this stage of the campaign and, in the space of 180 minutes on the fifth day of the fourth month of the campaign, the best that can be said of United’s hopes is that they are flickering.
By the time that Pep Guardiola’s runaway leaders visit Old Trafford on Dec. 10, United’s title ambitions may have been snuffed out completely. For now, at least, Mourinho believes his players can overcome a Stamford Bridge defeat inflicted by Alvaro Morata, the forward snubbed by United in favour of Romelu Lukaku this summer.
“We are worried (about the gap), but there are 18 teams more worried than us because we are second,” Mourinho said after the game. “Eight points, in the Premier League, is not the same as eight points in the Portuguese league, La Liga, the Bundesliga.
“Eight points in the Premier League, there’s still a lot to play for. I hope, I feel, I think, I wish that in the busy period of late-November, December, beginning of January, I think probably we are going to be at our maximum strength with [Paul] Pogba, [Marcos] Rojo and [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic back, with everyone who has been missing for the last few months, so probably we can be in a high.”
Wishful thinking on Mourinho’s part or the cold-headed wisdom of a manager who has experienced — and survived — the rigours of a Premier League winter in the past?
With City in such formidable form, it is difficult envisage anything other than the Premier League trophy returning to the Etihad Stadium in May. For Guardiola’s team not to win the title from their current position, it requires a collapse on their part and a rival to hit unbeatable form.
They might hit a sticky patch, but none of their rivals are showing the kind of form to make life difficult for Guardiola and his players and the fact that United are second, despite insipid recent performances, highlights the inconsistency of other clubs attempting to reel them in.
Mourinho’s belief — or hope — that the return of injured players will make a difference has some validity because the likes of Pogba and Ibrahimovic are important, charismatic performers who could inspire resurgence. But United and the rest are shipping water as City pull clear; it may be too late by the time they return.
City are blowing teams away, regardless of the standard of the opposition. In contrast, United cannot score when they travel to the homes of their top-six rivals and this latest episode of firing blanks means they have now netted just once under Mourinho in seven Premier League away games — that’s ten-and-a-half hours — against City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.
The difference between the Manchester clubs is like night and day: Mourinho will not care about the aesthetics — he never has — but will be suffering with the results. He may be pragmatic in comparison to the cavalier, adventurous Guardiola, but Mourinho is unquestionably a winner and will be spending every waking moment pondering how he and his team can turn the tide.
Privately, there may be a realisation that, this season at least, it is a task beyond him because United lack the depth and match-winning quality of their cross-city rivals. How Mourinho reacts to that reality is a question still to be answered, however.
Will he fight on in what may be an uneven battle or will his ego been unable to withstand the pain of being outdone? If Paris Saint-Germain come calling next summer, for example, will it be too tempting an offer to turn down?
His reaction to defeat against Chelsea suggests that he is still prepared to take on the challenge, but his game plan will need to change if he is to succeed. But while Guardiola and City are discovering that fortune really does favour the brave, United under Mourinho continue to take the safety-first approach and it looks an outdated concept.
Mourinho knows what it takes to win the Premier League, so maybe he is right and United can come back stronger when their big players return. But such is City’s points-gathering pace that time is already running out; this was another day when the desire not to lose outweighed the determination to win, which is a big factor why United lost.