Manchester United put down a statement on Tuesday evening when they swept past Hull with ease to record a 2-0 lead in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final. They just have to finish off the job later this month and then they will have secured a place in the final at Wembley. It will be the club’s first opportunity to win silverware this season and more significantly, it could be Jose Mourinho’s first chance to lift a trophy with United and usually when that happens, it is the catalyst for many others.
Mourinho’s past success with Chelsea suggests doing well in the competition could spark further success at Manchester United and it’s crucial the club starts to catch up with the best teams in England. The league cup provides an excellent opportunity to announce your authority in domestic competition and Mourinho did just that with Chelsea on three occasions. In the years he guided the Blues to glory, they went on to pick up further silverware in each of those campaigns – including the Premier League on two occasions and the FA Cup. They dominated the rest of the season, seemingly spurred on by the chance to lift more silverware.
The manager has always been a public admirer of the competition and it’s easy to see why given the teams who have competed for the trophy in recent years. Last year’s final saw Manchester City and Liverpool battle it out for the trophy – both are now key clubs in the running for the title chase this season.
If you pick up a trophy in February, it creates a winning mentality and increases motivation to win more. It worked for Chelsea and it should work for United.
Mourinho has begun to build a team of winners at United and their recent form has highlighted the huge potential the squad has going forward in the Premier League. Their position in the league hasn’t changed but nine wins in their last 10 matches in all competitions has certainly put them back in the running for a top four position. Victory against Liverpool this weekend could change everything but a defeat could prove equally as costly. There are a lot of “ifs” in the league but United can tick a huge box if they win the EFL Cup.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan came to the club to win trophies so it’s crucial United start to do that. The Champions League is already off the cards this season and the Premier League is certainly a long-shot, though not impossible. It’s the domestic cup competitions where United have the potential to cause more damage and should they overcome Hull in the second leg of the semi-final, there is a chance the final could line-up an interesting fixture.
Liverpool face Southampton in the other head-to-head and they will be expected to progress to their third league cup final in six years. If they do, it could be a huge clash in the final but what will be interesting to see, is how far Mourinho’s side have progressed since their first meeting with the Reds in October.
United’s tactics were questioned as it appeared they were playing for a draw and that’s exactly what they got despite a dominant performance from Jurgen Klopp’s side at Anfield. They could do the same on Sunday in the return league fixture at Old Trafford and given the tightness of the teams at the top, taking a point off the second-placed side wouldn’t be a bad result.
What was perhaps the most concerning factor though, was the fact United clearly felt they couldn’t match Liverpool with an attacking display and it was an unusually conservative display from one of the biggest clubs in England. It was clear to see they weren’t at the same level as Liverpool at that stage of the season. The fluency, combination and understanding between Mourinho’s players just wasn’t there – though it clearly is now. Klopp’s side continue to play with ambition but have United got the weapons to cause more concern this time around?
Perhaps a Wembley final and an opportunity to win silverware would prove that. Nobody wants to win trophies via a penalty shoot-out so surely United would play to win from the start. That would mean pitching themselves up against a strong side (should Liverpool qualify) and matching them across a full 90 minute game. Only then will it be clear how far United have come under Mourinho and it will be a test of whether they are currently capable of challenging the teams at the top in the league.
There’s no doubt United’s squad is one which can deliver in the future but the fans are used to success and they have had to wait patiently during this transitional period. Success in the final would certainly send a message to their Premier League rivals though – “We’ve beaten Liverpool, we’ve picked up the first trophy and we’re coming for more.”
It may not seem like the most impressive accolade but if Mourinho can kick-start his first season in charge with a trophy, it suggests United have an exciting few years ahead of them.
They just have to get to the final first…