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December 7, 2018

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Lowering of ambitions sums up sad state of Red Devils under Mourinho

Forget the many labored performances. Forget the measly points total.

Forget, even, the fact that the English Premier League title was out of realistic reach barely a third of the way in.

Perhaps the saddest indictment of the situation Manchester United finds itself under manager Jose Mourinho is the lowering of ambition that is permeating the club.

This week, Mourinho set about switching his targets, saying getting close to the top four in the EPL was now the big aim. Going even further, he said United had a “responsibility to finish in the top six.”

The 2-2 home draw with Arsenal on Wednesday — United’s third straight draw in the league — was regarded as a “positive sign” by Mourinho, who praised the “heart and spirit” of his players rather than their quality. The atmosphere at the final whistle, meanwhile, suggested United’s fans were satisfied with the result, too.

Perhaps it was a reaction of loyalty and realism. After all, United did have to play a patched-up team because of a slew of injury concerns, and Arsenal was arriving at Old Trafford on a 19-match unbeaten run. But maybe it was also a sign of drift at United, a brutal acceptance of the team’s position in the new EPL order.

Mourinho’s team is eighth in the standings after 15 games, behind Bournemouth and only two points ahead of Brighton. It has a negative goal difference, having conceded 25 goals — more than every club outside of the bottom five. It is eight points off the top four, and nearer to last place (Fulham) than first place (Manchester City).

As it happens, Fulham is the next visitor to Old Trafford on Saturday. It is surely a match Mourinho dare not lose, against an opponent that hasn’t kept a clean sheet all season, and against a manager in Claudio Ranieri whom Mourinho once said “has the mentality of someone who doesn’t need to win.”

The worry for United is that Fulham looks to be improving since Ranieri took over as coach last month as a replacement for the fired Slavisa Jokanovic. The southwest London club has a win, a draw, and a loss in three matches under Ranieri.

While Ranieri already seems to have a plan in place, does Mourinho? He has yet to field the same lineup this season and took the number of changes he has made to his starting team to 46 after switching seven players for the Arsenal game.

Tellingly, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku — the two most expensive players in United’s history — were on the bench, while Fred — the club’s fourth costliest signing, at US$70 million this offseason — wasn’t even in the squad.

The strained relationship between Mourinho and Pogba has been simmering for months, and it spoke volumes that France’s World Cup-winning midfielder didn’t make the team despite the fatigue and injury problems.

It has got to the point where United just needs a win — however it arrives, whatever the performance — so that the top four doesn’t get too far clear.

Otherwise, Mourinho might need to win the UEFA Champions League to get back in that competition next season, and potentially save his job.


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