MANCHESTER: Jose Mourinho is reeling from his heaviest loss in English soccer. Pep Guardiola has matched the longest winless run of his coaching career. Things are about to get worse for one of the managers when Manchester United and Manchester City meet today in the fourth round of the English League Cup. It’s the second head-to-head already this season between two coaches who had an often-tempestuous rivalry in Spain.
Of the four competitions United and City are involved in this season, the League Cup is the lowest priority for both managers, but the importance of a victory at Old Trafford has intensified because of their teams’ current form. United has won just one of its last six Premier League games and lost 4-0 at Chelsea on Sunday, a personal embarrassment for Mourinho at his former club. City is winless in its last five matches in all competitions, matching Guardiola’s career low at Barcelona in 2009.
For that reason, Mourinho and Guardiola may choose not to rotate their lineups as much as they might have wanted to. “Young players have to be involved in the team’s good moment, and you cannot forget now the last five games we didn’t win,” Guardiola said yesterday. “To help the young players, you have to be involved in a good environment, with people with experience.
“To put three, four, five young players in at the same time is not a good idea because we have to protect them.” The blue half of Manchester has had local bragging rights since Sept. 10, when City beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford in a performance that earned widespread praise for a side in the middle of a club-record winning run of 10 games. That game also underlined that United was still a work in progress under Mourinho, as subsequent results have proved. “We are really, really sad,” Mourinho said. “But this (current period) is not for kids, this is for men.”
There is possibly more pressure on Mourinho on Wednesday. While City’s displays haven’t been that bad during its winless streak, Mourinho will want a signature victory to disprove growing concerns that he may not be able to stop the slide at United since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. If Mourinho plays a strong team and loses a derby for the second time in under two months, he will face even more criticism. Here’s a look at some problem areas affecting the two teams, and where Mourinho and Guardiola might turn:
There are issues for Mourinho throughout the team. Up front, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has regressed since opening the season with four goals in his first three games. He has scored just once in his last eight games in all competitions and may be left out to give Marcus Rashford a game as lone striker. Paul Pogba has stood out in only a few games since his arrival in August for a world-record fee of $116 million – and not yet in a game of any real magnitude. Mourinho hasn’t found the best position for the France international, who flourished on the left of a three-man central midfield for former team Juventus and has been tried in attacking and defensive midfield positions at United. Mourinho must decide if Pogba starts a fourth game in 10 days.
United’s defense has now been hit by a suspected knee ligament injury to center back Eric Bailly, possibly the team’s best defender this season. Daley Blind and Chris Smalling may start at center back.
Defense is Guardiola’s biggest area of concern after five winless games in which mistakes at the back have been ruthlessly punished by Celtic, Tottenham, Everton, Barcelona and Southampton. Guardiola has played three at the back in the last two league games, and may return to a four-man defense and play youngster Pablo Maffeo at right back. Another 19-year-old player, Aleix Garcia, is set to play in central midfield as Kevin De Bruyne is out with a calf injury. Sergio Aguero hasn’t started two of City’s last three games, so may be one of the senior stars in the starting side. Otherwise, Kelechi Iheanacho will lead the attack. – AP