Round One went to Jose Mourinho.
Even though Manchester United finished outside the top four of the Premier League last season, triumphs in the League Cup and Europa League meant the Portuguese recorded a better start to his new job than old foe Pep Guardiola did at Manchester City.
Half a season on, Mourinho is now the one on the ropes.
While United started the season in fine fashion, they’ve been hit by injuries, suspensions and a drop in intensity that has seen them drift away from City.
INHERITED A POOR SQUAD
The problems have been piling up at Old Trafford, however many have’t been borne out of this campaign. Several issues with the squad are long-standing ones.
Despite the money spent since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager, the recruitment has been less than impressive and often lacking in direction.
The team had few striking options with Wayne Rooney past his best while Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford were far too raw and still lacking in experience even now. To his credit, recruiting Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a masterstroke by Mourinho, it made them competitive but alas, was another move that papered over the cracks.
Even with the signing of Paul Pogba, the midfield still lacked quality. It’s no wonder that Mourinho looks over at City and can’t help but be jealous.
The likes of Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Sergio Aguero and David Silva have all played starring roles this season and Guardiola didn’t have to spend a penny for any one of them.
Instead, the Spaniard had the luxury of splurging nearly £200million on four defenders since his arrival in order to implement his specific system while putting a couple of finishing touches to their attack.
Mourinho on the other hand has been scrambling to put out one fire after another only to turn around to find more.
The United boss has managed to rebuild Old Trafford as a fortress, one that has been breached only by City in recent times. However, the Theatre of Dreams still misses its aura of years gone by.
While teams are definitely daunted once again by the prospect of trying to take three points away from the venue, they aren’t exactly shaking in their boots in the tunnel, those nerves seem reserved for the Etihad Stadium now and perhaps even Anfield.
United no longer go for the jugular. Under Mourinho, they’re compact and attacks are calculated. The comebacks and late winners used to be part of the Old Trafford experience but the Red Devils never looked like scoring in the closing stages against Southampton on Saturday.
For that, Mourinho only has himself to blame. Regardless of the personnel, United always found a way to exert pressure on the opposition in the closing stages, throwing caution to the wind and camping in enemy territory until they finally gave in.
They used to be incredible at spreading play, overloading the flanks and forcing their opponents into submission. Under Mourinho, they have been ponderous in possession, devoid of genuine width and lacking in zip and intensity. No one believes they can clinch a result late on, themselves included.
Moving forward this season, United face an uphill task. Never mind the title, they now face a battle for a top four spot and injuries to Lukaku and Ibrahimovic won’t do them any favours.
With both senior strikers out, Mourinho is now having to pay for being so reliant on Lukaku in particular. Seldom has he entrusted either Rashford or, to an even lesser extent, Martial with the centre forward role since his appointment.
Last season, he had to throw Rashford in at the deep end when Ibrahimovic was injured and will now be forced to do the same again, unless he has his way and is allowed to splurge in January.
The team’s injury concerns aren’t just limited to the striker’s position though. With Antonio Valencia out, Mourinho has reluctantly had to turn to Luke Shaw at left-back while Ashley Young fills in for the Ecuadorian on the right.
More importantly, Michael Carrick’s health condition means Nemanja Matic has been working overtime and it’s beginning to tell in his performances.
Many of these issues though could’ve been avoided had Mourinho shown more faith in the younger players with the likes of Rashford afforded more chances up front or even Scott McTominay filling in on occasion for Matic to give the Serbian a rest.
Whatever resurgence United can manage for the rest of the season, if at all, Round Two seems destined to go to Guardiola and should Mourinho fail to learn from his mistakes ahead of next term, he could be on the receiving end of a knockout blow.
United’s top scorer Lukaku had played every minute in the Premier League before suffering a head injury in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Southampton, while Ibrahimovic, just back from a lengthy lay-off, has suffered a recurrence of his knee problem.
With Lukaku due to miss at least two games, and Ibrahimovic out for a month, Press Association Sport assesses who Jose Mourinho could now select up top.
It was 20-year-old Rashford who Mourinho called for when Lukaku was forced off against Saints, and the England international seems the most likely candidate to be the focal point.
He has played there before but has often been preferred in a wider berth under Mourinho as the Portuguese likes his central striker to carry a physical presence.
With Mourinho admitting that Lukaku had been in need of a rest, this is Rashford’s chance to show his boss he can be a worthy replacement as a central striker.
Another wide forward that may be temporarily moved inside to cover the striker shortage.
Martial has been used almost exclusively on the left under both Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, even though he stressed he saw himself as a striker shortly after arriving at Old Trafford.
Like Rashford, he lacks the size and stature that Mourinho covets in his centre-forward.
As with Rashford, this could be Martial’s opportunity to further his claim to feature in a role he has said he prefers.
Mourinho is unlikely to call upon the Belgian at his old club Everton on New Year’s Day given he has been ruled out of the festive period through injury.
However, he could be an option beyond that, particularly if Lukaku misses the games with Stoke and Burnley too.
Fellaini has played as a support striker at Everton and has on occasion been thrown further forward as a Plan B for United in the latter stages of games.
He certainly carries a threat in the air yet lacks the movement that Rashford and Martial have.
A JANUARY BUY
Only this week Mourinho admitted he did not think United would buy anyone in the January transfer window.
However, that view may have changed following a four-game winless run and the injuries to his two leading forwards.
Ibrahimovic’s problem in particular is a real concern.
At 36 there are doubts about whether he can ever return to the level he was at last term and that could sway Mourinho into thinking he needs another alternative to Lukaku.
The Premier League gets under way in 2018 with five fixtures on New Year’s Day.
Here, Press Association Sport details what to look out for on a day when Liverpool and Manchester United are in action and more twists and turns are expected at the bottom.
Which game are you looking forward to the most?
Mourinho’s problems are mounting
It is almost as if the air was sucked out of Manchester United‘s league campaign by the December derby defeat to City.
Three successive draws have dropped them to third place and United were booed off after Saturday’s Old Trafford stalemate against Southampton.
With questions over substance and style, the problems are growing for manager Jose Mourinho and an awkward-looking trip to
Everton has been made more difficult by the loss of strike pair Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Rooney return is well-timed
But Rooney came on for the second half at Bournemouth on Saturday and there is every chance that he will start against former club Manchester United at Goodison Park.
Few might have imagined that Rooney would have as many Premier League goals as United’s top scorer (Lukaku) at the start of 2018, and a Rooney winner at Goodison would heap more misery on his former club.
Liverpool chasing second spot
It was not too long ago that Liverpool‘s credentials to make the top four were being questioned.
But the feel-good factor is sweeping around Anfield ahead of their first 2018 fixture at Burnley.
Record signing Virgil van Dijk was in the stands to watch their comeback victory over Leicester and the giant Dutchman will be a welcome addition to a suspect defence.
And with Mo Salah keeping up his amazing scoring streak, there is every possibility that Liverpool can overtake Chelsea and Manchester United and emerge the best of the rest behind champions-elect Manchester City.
Will Hughes gamble pay off?
Xherdan Shaqiri, Joe Allen, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Peter Crouch all dropped to the bench as Stoke were battered 5-0 at Stamford Bridge.
Hughes admitted a two-day fixture turnaround had forced his hand in selection, and he clearly prioritised the New Year’s Day visit of Newcastle.
But it was a call that did not sit easily as the Chelsea goals flew in – and now Hughes needs a victory like never before.
Cherries on the up
Bournemouth head into 2018 and along the south coast to Brighton with a spring in their step and the winds of fortune blowing their way.
After Callum Wilson’s controversial last-gasp equaliser secured a 3-3 draw against fellow strugglers West Ham, Ryan Fraser’s late deflected strike gave Bournemouth a first win in nine games against Everton.
The victory took Bournemouth out of the relegation zone and the delight on boss Eddie Howe’s face was evident as he spoke about the psychological pressure of being in the bottom three.