Whenever he is asked about the League Cup final, Jose Mourinho always returns to the subject of ‘the 15 days’. The time between Southampton’s last match and Sunday’s game at Wembley, a time in which Manchester United will have played three fixtures.
Were this a boxing match, it would be a huge advantage but not even Mourinho’s own players quite buy his outrage. “I think our manager knows how to prepare a final because he has managed some,” said Ander Herrera. “We believe in what he is doing.
“In the FA Cup, he rested some important players against Blackburn and they, Pogba and Ibrahimovic, were crucial at the end of the game. It will not be key that Southampton have 15 days off because in football sometimes it is good to keep playing and winning and getting that rhythm.”
Sir Alex Ferguson who was at Ewood Park to see Manchester United make the quarter-finals with hard-fought 2-1 win over Blackburn while Southampton were resting, would probably agree.
When Manchester United met Newcastle in the 1999 FA Cup final, his side had played 12 more games and once they left Wembley, they would prepare for another – the European Cup final against Bayern Munich.
They beat Newcastle so comfortably that Ferguson remarked that it was the only one of the many finals he managed that he watched properly, as a spectator would watch it, because he was so sure Manchester United would win.
He added that one of the keys to United winning the Treble that year was they had so many matches that his squad did not have the time to take in the scale of what they were about to achieve.
Herrera is one player who will be fresh for the League Cup final. Suspended for the second leg against St Etienne, the Basque midfielder did not travel to France. Should Manchester United copy Liverpool in 2001 and reach three cup finals in a single season, he will be tired enough come May.
Gerard Houllier’s side won the League, the FA and the Uefa Cups while qualifying for the Champions League. There are some at Old Trafford who doubt that a club that has been in sixth place for most of the season and who have to play Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal in their final half-dozen Premier League games can repeat that.
“This club is about titles, we don’t select which competitions we go for,” said Herrera. “We have to respect our history and our fans. We know it will not be easy but we have to try.”
There are two reasons why they might succeed. Manchester United are in form. They have lost one match since October, and the 2-1 defeat at Hull in the second leg of the semi-final did not impede their progress to Wembley. The other is the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who won the French League Cup three times in his four seasons at Paris St Germain and is on course to become the first Manchester United player since Wayne Rooney in 2010 to be voted Footballer of the Year.
“He is the target for us,” said Herrera of the finest 35-year-old footballer in the world. “He has great height, he holds the ball up and he has the fantasy to resolve the play like he did at Blackburn.
“It was fantastic to get him because sometimes opponents are scared of him and the rest of us take advantage of that. We get more space, more second ball. We have got one of the best in the world.
“He is a strange case, a one-off. When he takes his shirt off and you see his body, he looks 28 or 29. Sometimes, I ask him what he does to continue to play the way he is doing because this is something I’d like to copy. He is so lucky with his DNA and we are so lucky to have him.
“Everyone who watches our games realises pretty quickly that a big team is playing because we control all the games – or most of them,” said Herrera, who admitted that Southampton had performed ‘fantastically’ to overcome Liverpool in the semi-finals.
“When Blackburn scored, we didn’t go crazy, we kept playing, kept moving the ball from side to side, creating chances. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we are showing just how difficult it is to beat us.
“I cannot say it is impossible to beat us but it is difficult because we are very compact, we attack, we create chances. We are in a good moment but I always say that football has no memory and, if we don’t perform well at Wembley, everyone will forget what we have done.”
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