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Mourinho's rejuvenated United face litmus test on Chelsea return

15   //    12 Mar 2017, 14:36 IST
JoseMourinhoAntonioConte - cropped
Manchester United manager (L) Jose Mourinho and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte (R)

Jose Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge last October ended in a humiliating defeat, but the Manchester United manager heads back to his old stomping ground in the FA Cup with a side in impressive form.

Mourinho's United tenure got off to a rocky start with a series of inconsistent results, and a 4-0 thumping away at Chelsea provided him with his heaviest defeat since taking charge of the Premier League giants.

The Portuguese was noticeably irked by Chelsea counterpart and permanent Blues replacement Antonio Conte during the loss – the scars of an ignominious title defence in 2015-16 that brought his second spell in west London to an abrupt end seemingly still raw.

Conte whipping up the crowd after N'Golo Kante struck Chelsea's fourth did not sit well with Mourinho, who pulled the Italian close at the final whistle and criticised his antics.

But since then, Mourinho has led United on a 17-match unbeaten run in the Premier League, steered them to the Europa League last 16, lifted the EFL Cup title and suffered just two defeats in 31 games in all competitions – not bad going.

An FA Cup quarter-final against the runaway league leaders now offers a barometer on their change of fortunes and the chance to see whether true progress has been made since that humbling loss, though Chelsea's club website cheekily pointed out this week that United's unbeaten run and seen them rise "from sixth to sixth" in the table.

Regardless of such barbs, progress in Manchester has been evident. Mourinho appears to have settled on a midfield pairing of Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba after chopping and changing earlier in the season, while enigmatic veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played a starring role with 26 goals in all competitions - including a brace to sink Southampton at Wembley.

Ibrahimovic's absence from the clash at Stamford Bridge will be a huge blow for United, as he serves the first game of a three-match ban for elbowing Tyrone Mings during the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth last weekend.

Along with leading the Old Trafford scoring charts, the Swede has made more appearances than any of his team-mates with 40 outings this term - a mainstay in a regularly rotated line-up.

But with United three points adrift of fourth-placed Liverpool in the Premier League with a game in hand, Mourinho knows there is still work to do if they are to live up to the demands placed upon them.

"The hard part is the expectation because of the club's history. I am also a little bit guilty of it because I am used to winning trophies in every club," he told BBC Football Focus.

"The relationship between our true potential and the expectations, there is a gap and that gap is the most difficult thing."

The Portuguese is no stranger to living up to lofty expectations and toppling seemingly irrepressible forces in the process.

In 2011-12 his Real Madrid side suffered a 3-1 defeat to arch-rivals Barcelona - then coached by nemesis Pep Guardiola and basking in LaLiga and Champions League glory from the previous season - but responded by going unbeaten from that matchday 15 setback to capture the title and end the hegemony of the Catalan giants.

Victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup on Monday could provide a similar milestone; proof that United are showing signs of making their way to back to the level where Alex Ferguson them and helping to inspire their push for more silverware. Defeat, though, would simply emphasise the size of the "gap" Mourinho still has to tackle at Old Trafford.

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