Mourinho needs to show some attacking intent

Manchester: Manchester City’s hierarchy were on a flight back from Nyon, where they had been attending the draw for the Champions League quarter-finals, last month when Jose Mourinho launched into his “heritage” rant, his uneasy defence of Manchester United’s humiliating exit to Sevilla in the competition a few days earlier.

Mourinho’s rhetoric that Friday afternoon felt as empty as the row of unclaimed seats in front of Txiki Begiristain, the City director of football, and colleagues that had been reserved for their United counterparts in anticipation of the club earning a place in the Champions League’s last eight.

Yet as embarrassing as that Sevilla defeat may have been for Mourinho, it will pale by comparison to the prospect of City — Pep Guardiola’s City — being crowned Premier League winners at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow night with victory over United.

It was unthinkable when Mourinho and Guardiola pitched up in Manchester in the summer of 2016 amid hope of a resumption of their epic feud in Spain with Real Madrid and Barcelona that, almost two years on, the rivalry would turn out to be such a mismatch. City will clinch the championship with six games to spare — a Premier League record — if they overcome United and move 19 points clear of their rivals in the process.

But what will jar even more for United fans is the knowledge that City, a club for whom the prospect of a derby victory used to be the highlight of the season, have far bigger priorities than wrapping up the title against rivals in whose shadow they once lay dormant.

The second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool at the Etihad on Tuesday is a much bigger deal for Guardiola and his players and it is not as if United fans can have much fun at the expense of City’s 3-0 loss in the first leg at Anfield, not when there is the possibility of Liverpool edging towards a sixth European Cup. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

And, yet, there is more to gain tomorrow than Mourinho simply trying to play the role of party pooper. Liverpool’s resounding win against City on Wednesday was no fluke. They have beaten the runaway league leaders twice in the space of three months and done so by scoring seven goals, a reward for ambition and adventure as much as a clearly thought out game plan, traits the Old Trafford faithful yearn to see in their side.

The only thing more galling for United fans at the Etihad than the prospect of a home win would be a City victory achieved against opponents who park the bus, who refuse to go for the jugular, who once again display the reticence that stands squarely at odds with the club’s tradition of vibrant attacking football.

So Mourinho has a chance to throw down a marker. It may mean little in the context of this season — City will win the title, if not tomorrow, then the week after or the week after that and United’s top four place looks assured — but it could at least serve as a statement of intent for next term.

United’s dire 2-1 defeat to City at Old Trafford in December was a demoralising experience for everyone of a red persuasion. It was not as if they simply set up negatively. It was the absence of any discernible strategy, the sight of centre halves Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling aimlessly punting long balls forward, a source of bewilderment among fans whose frustration eventually gave way to embarrassment. Their dismay was only compounded by the knowledge that City had not played well and were reliant on two set pieces to win. It has to be so much better than that. Mourinho has moaned about City’s spending.

But it rings a little hollow when he has committed almost pounds 300 million on players in four transfer windows and the fees paid for his two most high-profile signings, pounds 89 million for Paul Pogba and pounds 75 million rising to pounds 90 million for Romelu Lukaku, dwarf Guardiola’s biggest outlays of pounds 57 million and pounds 52 million on Aymeric Laporte and Benjamin Mendy respectively. It is also not Guardiola’s fault Mourinho has neglected a defence that is still populated by players who looked no more convincing when Sir Alex Ferguson had them.

Equally, if Mauricio Pochettino, operating at Spurs with a wage bill half the size of United’s and with a transfer budget that bears no comparison, can avoid bleating about finances, it should be well within the Portuguese’s powers.

Whatever the outcome tomorrow, Mourinho’s approach will tell us a lot.