Jose Mourinho deserves credit for Man United Champions League form

Craig Burley explains how Paul Pogba’s current mindset and relationship with Jose Mourinho is negatively impacting Man United’s team dynamic.

For all the justified criticism he gets for Manchester United’s Premier League form, Jose Mourinho deserves praise for his side qualifying for the Champions League’s Round of 16 with one game to spare. As he pointed out following Marouane Fellaini’s 91st-minute winner against Young Boys, his teams have reached the knockout stages in all of his 14 campaigns as a manager. Not even Sir Alex Ferguson had a record like that.

Make no mistake, United have come through a tough group. Critics claimed they were fortunate to come from behind and inflict Juventus’ first group-stage defeat at home in nine years, but Mourinho’s changes, which saw Fellaini and Juan Mata come on, were inspired and changed the game, leading to the ear-cupping celebration toward fans who had spent the game abusing a former Inter manager.

That Matchday 5 win was followed by the late show vs. Young Boys mean this week’s trip to Valencia can take place in a more relaxed frame of mind. Although United do retain a chance to win their group, their travelling squad includes some younger players and affords others a rest ahead of Sunday’s game league game at Liverpool.

Despite likely changes and the fact that United have a poor record in Spain, they should still try to win at Mestalla and not only for the €2 million that each group-stage victory brings. Three more points would boost confidence that needs a lift and show that Mourinho’s men can perform in the only major tournament they have a chance to win.

(Another run to the FA Cup final would be appreciated, but it would be unlikely to save Mourinho’s job, just as winning the competition in 2016 was not enough for Louis van Gaal to stay at Old Trafford.)

United need to qualify for the next season’s Champions League and, given they are eight points outside the Premier League’s top four, winning this season’s competition might be their best opportunity, however improbable that might sound.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho shouts instructions at Nemanja Matic during their UCL match with Valencia.
Manchester United and Valencia have been familiar opponents in recent years.

Two thousand fans will travel to the superb, towering 53,000-capacity Mestalla stadium, each paying €85 for the privilege of watching what is a largely meaningless game. Such excessive ticket costs have long been familiar to United supporters when visiting in Spain and it is encouraging that UEFA have pledged to stop the price gouging.

As ever, Valencia have a squad full of talented players but, after finishing fourth last season, are struggling this term: Los Che have won only three of their 15 games and sit 15th. They have drawn nine times, more than any other team in La Liga, and history points to a similar result on Wednesday; the 0-0 score when the sides met at Old Trafford in October was the fifth time in eight meetings that games between the clubs have ended level.

Valencia will finish third in the group regardless of the result, meaning they are Europa League-bound in the New Year. Gary Neville, in his short, unsuccessful spell as boss during the 2015-16 season, got more points per game than Marcelino has this season and also scored more goals.

The club’s fans have high expectations, while the team also has the most critical, unforgiving media of any Spanish club. But recent form has been better: Valencia drew with second-placed Sevilla at the weekend, while two of their three league wins have come in their last four games.

The first time they played United was in 1982, winning a UEFA Cup first round tie 2-1 on aggregate. The first leg was a goalless draw at Old Trafford, after which The Times wrote of the Spanish side that featured the great Argentinian striker Mario Kempes: “Genteel is not a word to that is often used to describe Spanish defensive methods which grew increasingly crude and irritating.”

The return game was marred by trouble, for which United supporters were blamed by the Spanish media and by their own club, who refused to take up subsequent ticket allocations. At a time when every English team had significant numbers of troublemakers within its fan base, authorities were not prepared to listen. Hooliganism was originally the English disease, then it spread.

“There were riots in Valencia in 1982 which were horrendous, absolutely horrendous,” former United chairman Martin Edwards told me. “I was in the ground watching and I feared the ban coming for English clubs, but what could we do?”

On the pitch, United took the lead through Bryan Robson after 45 minutes, before another ‘goal’ by the midfielder was disallowed after Norman Whiteside was alleged to have lifted his foot in a challenge on Valencia’s goalkeeper. There was also controversy at the other end.

“United were robbed of a place in Europe when yet another naive referee fell for a blatant con-trick,” the Daily Mail wrote. Valencia’s second goal came from a penalty awarded after “Kevin Moran put in a legitimate-looking block tackle on substitute Ribes, who performed an extravagant acrobatic dive which fooled the referee.”

That defeat is the only time United have come up short against Valencia; they managed a win and loss in 1999-2000, drew twice the following season and then, in 2010-11, Javier Hernandez scored the only goal of the game at Mestalla, before the clubs drew 1-1 in Manchester.

Among Valencia’s substitutes on the latter occasion was Juan Mata, who returns to his former club this week, and Isco, then 18. United reached a third Champions League final in four years that season, back when such progress was seen as a habit. Those were the days!