After the exhilarating turnaround at Selhurst Park, United will need to channel the same mojo to triumph over Liverpool on Saturday.
Manchester United head into one of the biggest games of their season today having reversed what could easily have been an embarrassing performance against Crystal Palace on Tuesday, and looking to purge themselves completely off the dips in form and confidence that has plagued them on and off the whole season. Particularly the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba and their defensive core have been under fire for some time now.
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Sanchez’s recent form in many ways typifies the problem with United this season, specifically their see-sawing form in attack. And the game against Liverpool, the result of which could well prove the difference between 2nd and 3rd in the table in the end, could be make or break for Mourinho as far as fixing this problem goes. Win, and his players spur on to greater heights of confidence and the bravado they should be playing with. Lose, and the likes of Sanchez and Pogba are sucked further into the vicious-cycle of rapidly eroding form and confidence.
The best plan for Mourinho, though, is undoubtedly an offensive one. He may have an imperious defensive record at home, but employing the kind of tactics he did at Anfield in October can be calamitous if they backfire. He may have no other choice than to go toe-to-toe with Klopp and try to overpower Liverpool. And with the almost miraculous result against Palace at their back, it might just be possible for United.
Just another game for Mourinho
And yet when asked about the significance of the fixture ahead of Saturday’s encounter, the Portuguese almost expectedly presented an indifferent stance:
“I still don’t know because in my mentality every match is the same and I’m not very good on that culture of this match is special, this rivalry is special.
“I never looked to AC Milan as the biggest rival, I never looked at Atletico Madrid as the enemy, I never looked at Arsenal as the big rival.
Welcome to fortress Old Trafford.
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“For me it is just a big match with two historical clubs, not just in England – in the world. I still don’t look to some matches as a special opponent. It is a big match because we are speaking about some big clubs.
“We have three matches now – Liverpool, Sevilla and Brighton. If you ask me if I could choose one to be the most important, I can’t choose.
“The most important is Liverpool because it is the next but the other two are knockouts. I don’t think the fans are happy if I say Liverpool is the biggest match of the season and Sevilla is not a big match.
“Everyone wants to go to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-finals. Is Brighton less important than the Liverpool match?”
Mourinho must keep a firm grip on the switch United found against Crystal Palace
When probed further on his opinion of the visiting side, the Manchester United boss again displayed a largely cool front:
“They are a very good team, but they are a very good team with some weaknesses. Weaknesses I don’t think is a very strong word because I also use that word in relation to my own team.
“One of my good qualities as a coach was always to know very well my team’s weaknesses. Sometimes I try to hide them and sometimes I have to try to compensate for them with other things.
Paul Pogba before and after Alexis Sanchez joined Manchester United… pic.twitter.com/Ck0keN0YMl
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But however confident Mourinho may be in terms of his overarching strategy, further reviving his players is also as, if not more, crucial to his side’s fortunes going forward.
Alexis Sanchez perhaps hit his nadir against Palace on Tuesday. Promising moves forward floundered almost as soon as the ball found its way to Sanchez. And the Chilean seemed unable to make the simplest of passes at times to the frustration of his teammates.
In fact, switching out the fullbacks – one of Mourinho’s second-half changes that was hailed as one of the catalyst for United’s transformation – was more down to Sanchez and his inability to engage them in the first-half rather than their own shortcomings.
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Another key to United’s second-half rejuvenation was the introduction of Rashford, whose energy and directness raised the threat presented by United in attack by several orders. Switching Pogba to a more central role, where his options for relays extended beyond Sanchez was another big move.
Sanchez may be of undoubted pedigree. But Mourinho’s concern should now lie in reducing the burden on the Chilean until such time that he settles in. As for the defence, the return of Bailley would be a big jolt in the right direction for the side.