When Benni McCarthy stepped up to take the free kick in the Champions League away tie against Manchester United in March 2004, there was a strange feeling that Porto would make it to the next round, even before Costinha converted the feeble touch by goalkeeper, Tim Howard. That intuitive feeling nested in the minds of the millions was primarily down to the resolve that Porto FC had exhibited throughout the night at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho was the man in charge, who went on to win the Champions League that season.
A Night of Firsts at Old Trafford
Fourteen years later, Mourinho is on the other side of the English Channel at the helm of the greatest English football club. But what seemed to be missing last night against Sevilla FC was the same resolve that saw Porto FC conquer Old Trafford in 2004. The manager was the same, but the attitude of the players on the pitch was different.
Manchester United were ousted by Sevilla last night 1-2 on their home ground in a dismal performance by the North-West side. In a night of firsts for the Spanish side, Sevilla FC qualified for the quarter finals for the first time in their history, and in the process got their first ever win on English soil in the Champions League.
Manchester United simply lost to a better side. United lacked character, the winning mentality, and the heart to win the fixture. While the players who served under Mourinho at Porto showed the will to burn themselves out in order to cross the finishing line, the expensively assembled stars in red lacked grit, inspiration, and a sense of responsibility towards the crest on their jersey. Apart from talent, the fine line separating truly elite athletes from everyone else is their positive mental attitude — and United had none of it last night. This was a side that couldn’t commit themselves to putting their best on the field even with 51% possession. Reflecting on the game, and the performance of Alexis Sanchez, former United defender, Rio Ferdinand, offered this penetrating and scathing critique:
“Sanchez looks like a shadow of his former self. When he was at Arsenal, he was a player everyone looked to for inspiration. Here he looks like a stranger. When you got to a new team, you don’t lose your talent. Something isn’t going for him. It wasn’t just Sanchez. The whole eleven was shocking. The attitude just seemed off, lethargic. If you are a team at home, the onus on your is to attack and away the advantage from the opposing team and I thought the team started conservative.” – Rio Ferdinand (BT Sport)
Mourinho’s Team Selection was Cowardly
A lack of energy to win on such a stage would render any tactical masterstroke void. But while the manager who won with Porto may not be responsible for such a bleak attitude, Mourinho could be held responsible for the team selection. Starting Fellaini, after United’s sublime weekend performance, in a fixture against a Spanish side that is inexperienced in the Champions League is cowardly. In a must win situation, Manchester United should have gone for the jugular to kill the game off in the first hour. Rashford oozed class on the left against Liverpool, but was shifted to the right against Sevilla FC, a plan which did not work out for the Portuguese.
“They never played at a tempo which was enough to cause this average Seville team a problem. They never did until Seville scored basically. They couldn’t get out of that second, third gear.” – Souness (TV3)
Manchester United didn’t lose because the score stood 1-2 at full time, United lost because they showed no will to win. They lost before stepping on the pitch. But credit should be given where it’s due. Seville FC had no prior winning-experience on English soil, and were outsiders, but will go home with a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t go far in the competition. They did what Porto did in 2004. Sevilla FC came, saw, and conquered. Had Manchester United got an away goal in the first leg, things would have been different.
Vincenzo Montella deserves the credit for his tactical change of bringing Ben Yedder on in the 73rd minute to turn the tide in Sevilla’s favour. Sevilla FC did everything right. He hailed his side saying, “I have some very happy players who have got Sevilla in their soul and in their heart. All the players were fantastic, they played the game of their lives.” Montella’s Sevilla qualified for the quarter finals for the first time in 60 years and by doing so have shown that the proper attitude and will to win will go a long way in overcoming your shortcomings at elite levels. On the other hand, United will have to learn from this season which might end up trophyless and come back stronger next season.