Liverpool have had a furiously fast start to the season, and the optimism at Anfield has not been this high in a long time. Star player Phillipe Coutinho is in form, and with compatriot Roberto Firmino, is creating goal scoring chances left, right, and centre.
Summer signing Sadio Mane has fitted in extremely well, and it looks like the jigsaw puzzle that is being assembled by Jurgen Klopp is finally fitting into place.
Manchester United, on the other hand, are not smiling as widely as their Liverpool counterparts right now. Record signing Paul Pogba has blown hot and cold, captain Wayne Rooney is out of form, results have been a little shaky after a bright start, and question marks are being raised in the press whether United can ever be back to their dominating self.
Looks like the stage is perfectly set for a Jose Mourinho smash and grab victory then?
The preamble to the game has included question marks about Jose Mourinho’s style of play, his controversial comments pressuring the referee who will take charge of the game, and newspaper reports making Liverpool the favourites of the game. The territory is all too familiar, and Jurgen Klopp, like other managers to have faced Mourinho in big games, will know that only too well. The only problem, it seems, is that he cannot do anything about it.
These are the type of games that have typified Mourinho’s genius. There are bookmarks across the pages of the book, that is the Portuguese tactician's career, that tell us so plainly.
Cast your mind back to March 2004, when Mourinho ran down the Old Trafford touch line after Costinha pounced on a rebound to knock Manchester United out of the 2003/04 Champions League or the time when he ran across the Nou Camp pitch after the final whistle towards the Inter supporters, soaking wet, after his 10-men Inter Milan defeated the best ever Barcelona side on aggregate.
Mourinho’s victory in the League Cup with Chelsea against Liverpool, where Mourinho controversially put a finger to his lips to silence his critics may also flash in your mind. All those games had controversy written all over them.
Chelsea’s victory against Man Utd at home in 2015, where Eden Hazard’s solitary goal proved to be the winner, after Chelsea had managed less than 35% possession is another game where a Mourinho team “managed” a big game exceedingly well.
The Portuguese manager also once fielded a team which essentially consisted of Chelsea’s reserves (after threatening to do so) against a Liverpool side fighting for the title against Manchester City, in protest of the Premier League’s refusal to hand English teams a day’s rest before crucial European encounters (Chelsea faced Atletico Madrid in the 2013 Champions League semi-final a few days later).
Everybody in England, apart from Chelsea’s supporters, were incensed with this decision. But nobody could say anything to criticise his team selection, because remarkably, Mourinho engineered a famous victory once again.
What is beyond question is that Mourinho is at his best on two occasions – one, when he has his back is against the wall and has to prove something to the football world, and two, during big games.
Mourinho is the man for big games
Jose Mourinho has an astonishingly good record in “big games”, having lost only a handful of times.
Jurgen Klopp knows this only too well, and he has been cautious in his pre-match press conference. He rubbished suggestions that Mourinho is past it, and he praised Mourinho, calling him a “winner.” Klopp is no fool. He knows that he shouldn’t get drawn into mind games against Mourinho before the game if he wants to have any chance of coming out of this battle as the victor.
What is for certain though is that Jose Mourinho’s players will be tactically prepared to the tee, with each player knowing exactly what his role is during the game. Mourinho would have studied in depth, the threats posed by Klopp’s “counter-pressing” tactics, and the deficiencies of the same.
If to expose these deficiencies, Mourinho has to concede possession, defend deep, and spring on the counter, he won’t be shy of doing just that. In fact, he will be licking his lips at the prospect, because that is where he is best at. It is his bread and butter.
Do not be surprised if Coutinho is anonymous in the game, Sturridge is shut out, and Firmino is left frustrated. Do not be surprised if Liverpool seemingly “dominate”, but come out of the game empty handed.
Jose Mourinho will be at his efficient, ruthless, mechanical best, because that is what Jose Mourinho does. He riles up opponents, motivates his team, tactically and mentally outclasses his opponents, and when seemingly the whole world is against him, he smiles in the post-match press conference after the big game, when everybody grudgingly lauds his genius.
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