Jose Mourinho has challenged Manchester United’s stars to prove his revolution is on track by winning the first major silverware of his reign in Sunday’s League Cup final against Southampton.
Given his remarkable success in 17 years as the world’s most fascinating and polarising manager, it’s understandable Mourinho labels the League Cup as only a “little detail” on a glittering CV including two Champions League triumphs and league titles in England, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
But the United manager is too shrewd an operator not to realise that perception is everything in the ‘what have you done for me lately’ world of the Premier League.
After being sacked by Chelsea last season, Mourinho arrived at United in July with a point to prove after critics questioned whether he had lost his magic touch and the initial reviews of his rebuilding job were underwhelming.
Despite overhauling an unbalanced squad with the world record capture of France midfielder Paul Pogba and astute moves for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly, Mourinho cut a tetchy, frustrated figure as United endured a miserable run of two wins in 11 league games.
A hammering by Chelsea was especially chastening for Mourinho, who suffered taunts of “You’re not special anymore” from his old club’s supporters.
Since then United have lost just two of their 28 games in all competitions, yet are still 12 points behind league leaders Chelsea in a disappointing sixth place.
Mourinho knows he badly needs to qualify for the Champions League and win a cup or two to ensure players, fans and the club’s hierarchy remain in his corner.
A victory at Wembley could act as a catalyst to further success, just as it did when the League Cup was the first silverware of his maiden spell with Chelsea.
Reminded he would become the first United manager to win a major trophy in their first season if his team beat Southampton, Mourinho responded: “First of all, you are right with ‘if’. ‘If’ is a big thing in football.
“But I think it is more important for the club than myself. I have so many good things in my career that I wouldn’t be influenced by a little detail.
“The important thing is the club and obviously the club won a trophy last season. Let’s try to win another one this season.
“Plus the quality and dimension of our football is very important and I realised that by the fans’ reaction, their happiness is very important, their empathy with the way the team plays.
“So it will be good for the group, it will be good for the club. It will also be good for me, obviously.”
– Underdogs –
United have won the League Cup four times in their history, most recently in 2010.
Southampton were also celebrating that February weekend seven years ago, but it is a measure of their understated but remarkable rise that the victory came against Walsall in League One.
Now firmly established in the Premier League, Claude Puel’s side might be underdogs on their first appearance at Wembley since 2010, but that’s nothing new for Saints.
It is 41 years since then second tier Southampton shocked United in the FA Cup final to lift the only major trophy in the club’s history.
Now they aim to repeat that upset by winning the League Cup in their first appearance in the competition’s final since 1979.
“I know the last time Southampton won a cup was in 1976 against Manchester. It’s a long time and it will be fantastic to take a good result,” Puel said.
“I can understand the good atmosphere around the team and the fans, but it’s important for us to keep focused and with a good concentration about the game.
“We have to keep the good attitude and good spirit.”
Wayne Rooney will be involved just days after confirming he will stay with United despite interest from the lucrative Chinese Super League, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan misses out after suffering an injury in the midweek Europa League clash at Saint Etienne.
Saints defender Martin Caceres could be handed a Wembley debut following his recent arrival.