For most supporters, the perfect weekend of football results is a rarity. Over the past few days, though, Manchester United fans have been left smiling as the final whistle has blown in a number of games.
First, Manchester City drew away to Burnley thanks to a late equaliser, then United won their own game 2-0 a few hours later against Huddersfield. The following day, both Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool dropped points, in a particularly painful way for the latter after they thought Mohamed Salah had won the game in the 91st minute. Harry Kane denied them the victory with a penalty in the 95th minute.
On Monday night, Chelsea were thrashed 4-1 away from home against Watford, continuing their poor run of form since Antonio Conte’s war of words with Jose Mourinho.
While City are well out of sight, as they have been for months, United have finally got some breathing room from the teams below them in the table. They are now five points clear of Liverpool, six clear of Chelsea, seven from Spurs and 11 from Arsenal. With just 12 games remaining this season, this puts United in a good place for securing a Champions League place again, through league position this year rather than winning the Europa League like last season.
That’s not to say that United supporters are content with how far behind City they find themselves but after a period of real instability, thanks to the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, poor recruitment since and largely inadequate business in the transfer market, things are starting to go their way again. It’s far from the perfect scenario, but the fans are being given reassurances that their club is heading in the right direction again.
City have outspent United in four of the past five seasons, so it was always going to take time for the Reds to be in a position to compete again. Guardiola inherited a squad with the star players already in place, with Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling all in the team, while Mourinho has sought to buy his own versions of these key players.
Yet if United can have a strong finish to the season and sign top players in the summer, next season should see them compete seriously for the title for the first time since Ferguson left.
Mourinho will take some satisfaction from United’s current position, given how routinely his methods have been criticised by others throughout the campaign.
The 0-0 result from Anfield certainly looked better when City went 4-1 down to Liverpool when trying to get a result by playing attacking football. His preference for Romelu Lukaku over Alvaro Morata has so far proven wise, with the Belgian scoring seven more than the Chelsea striker so far this season, with four goals in his past six games, compared to four in the past 16 for the Spaniard.
After Conte got in a dig last summer, about wanting to avoid a “Mourinho season,” the Italian is struggling just as Jose did in his season after winning the league, with the players also failing to show up for Conte just as they did their former manager.
That’s not to say that Mourinho will be wholly satisfied with how the season has gone. Before Paul Pogba’s two-month layoff with injury, the manager had to fancy the chances of pushing Guardiola, even if he knew his squad was inferior. The fact that Eric Bailly has only been available for eight league games hasn’t helped his cause, either. But the simple fact remains United just can’t match the quality of City this season.
Being second-best won’t be a consolation to him because he knows as well as any that second is nothing. But United are the best of the rest, which is a position the supporters craved when finishing seventh and winning nothing with David Moyes.
If United can finish second and win a trophy, with only two routes to silverware now available, that will be a good season and a decent platform to build a title challenge on for next season.
After a shaky period a few months ago, when a move to Paris Saint-Germain was mooted by some, Mourinho has put an end to the speculation and extended his current deal with the club. He has unfinished business and is up for the challenge of reinstating United as top dogs once more.
Mourinho managed to get the better of Guardiola in Spain. Only time will tell if he can repeat that success in Manchester.