If there's anything Jose Mourinho enjoys more than being proved right, it's being proved right amid the thought that the world is against him.
After Victor Valdes's addition to the fine canon of slapstick comedy presented Antonio Valencia with the third goal in Manchester United's 3-1 win over Middlesbrough on Sunday, Mourinho skipped down the tunnel with a look of supreme justification on his face.
This presumably proved that Mourinho was right to play a back three, to select Marouane Fellaini, to remove a forward and play the last 20 or so minutes with four centre-backs after going 2-0 up. When Valdes's legs splayed like a drunk foal and donated the ball to Valencia, Mourinho was proved right.
Even defeating a team who are second-bottom of the table and have just parted from their manager, Mourinho did his best to portray the win as a Sisyphean task completed, a victory against significant odds.
United made seven changes to the team that beat Rostov in the Europa League in the week, and set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Marcus Rashford up front in place of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“We changed a lot of players,” Mourinho said after the game. “We tried to protect others in the way we played. Valencia played in a position where I tried to protect him a little bit, instead of 100m up and down.
"I tried to protect the central defenders in the last part of the game. I had to protect Mata after 60 minutes because he played 90 against Rostov. I had no central midfielders on the bench so had to play with Carrick and Fellaini for 90 minutes.”
United now haven't lost a league game since October 23, and have finally clambered into the top five after what seemed like eons in sixth.
Although actually it's 105 days, if you discount a couple of hours in February: and if you only count full rounds of fixtures, it's 184 days. Either way, it's been a while.
They're now in touch with the Champions League places, even if Mourinho completed an impressive about-turn by claiming the Europa League is now his priority for the season.
“That gives us Champions League football, but also gives us a trophy, prestige, and the European Super Cup,” he said, having significantly changed his tune since the days he mocked Rafa Benitez winning that trophy at Chelsea.
“It would be a big disappointment to me,” he said back in 2013, but now in 2017, life has changed. “Maybe we won't win the Europa League, so we have to fight to try to finish fourth.”
In truth the 3-1 scoreline flattered United rather, and if Boro's defence had been more competent then they may have struggled even more than Mourinho thought they did.
Fellaini put United ahead in the first-half, after Ashley Young was allowed to cut back onto his right foot and deliver a perfect cross to the back post, headed home by the Belgian. They were two up when the whole defence backed off with Jesse Lingard – a fine player but not exactly someone to be terrified of – and allowed him time to spank the ball into the top corner.
Lingard limped off with an ankle injury late on, but Mourinho professed his optimism that he would be fit to report for England duty this week.
Then, after Boro substitute Rudy Gestede had pulled one back and made the closing stages rather ticklish, came Valdes's error, slipping while trying to clear.
“These things happen in football,” said Boro's caretaker manager Steve Agnew, trying to spin the calamity as a positive. “Sometimes things like that bring the group even tighter together.”
After the game, after United held on and after Mourinho had disappeared from the touchline (“It's hard to work out his next move, but we shook hands,” said Agnew, when asked if he felt disrespected), there was a brief bout of jostling in the tunnel, seemingly a spill-over from an incident involving Gestede and Eric Bailly in the second-half.
Neither manager could – or would – shed any light on that episode of shoving, both preferring to concentrate on their own side's fighting spirit.
This was a United win that few would describe as pretty or even convincing. “I have to admit it was difficult for us,” Mourinho solemnly intoned. But you suspect he wouldn't have it any other way.
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