It has been billed as the master versus the pupil; Louis van Gaal against José Mourinho. More than 15 years since they worked together at Barcelona the pair reunites as Manchester United and Chelsea meet on Sunday. Time has taken each on a different path, but somehow inevitably to Old Trafford. After all, the Portuguese coach was widely believed to be desperate to take the United job before David Moyes, inexplicably, was anointed by Sir Alex Ferguson last summer.
Moyes failed and in his stead Van Gaal is picking up the pieces of a disastrous season under the Scot. United’s squad has been blessed with an influx of £150 million worth of new talent, but the club’s stock has fallen such that the Reds start the fixture 10 Premier League points behind Chelsea. It is not often in the past decade that Chelsea has arrived at Old Trafford favourites, but the west Londoners do so and some.
Van Gaal’s side has rarely found the balance between attacking riches and defensive inexperience this season. Not least because of an injury list that has stretched, at times, to a full 10 players. That burden is easing, although the manner in which United’s forwards misfired at the Hawthorns last weekend, while the Dutchman’s back-four found itself all too often out of shape, is concerning. More than three months into the job, Van Gaal has much to do.
The contrast with Mourinho’s side is stark, of course, with Chelsea unbeaten and seemingly bounding towards the Premier League title even at this early stage of the campaign. Yet, while Chelsea leaps ahead on the pitch, Van Gaal is unwilling to be drawn into a personal battle with his former assistant – nor the ‘mind games’ seemingly the obsession of the fourth estate.
“I don’t know him as a manager because I am never there,” said the 62-year-old.
“I know him as a person and as my assistant manager. Maybe you know that I am always a controversial person and a lot of media has written about that. I am a little bit iron, an iron shield. Everyone can write or speak about me and I cannot change that. It took a long time for me to understand that but I cannot change what you are writing about me. So I have learned not to react and to believe in myself, my players and staff.
“When did I learn this? Since coming to England! Every human being reacts in his own way to what is said and you have to ask him why he reacts like he does, not me. We hardly speak to each other, only sometimes on SMS. When we see each other, we feel the warmth between us and our families, which is nice.”
Sunday is a test both of the Dutchman’s progress at United and the gap United must bridge more than any personal duel. In truth the Reds are some distance behind the country’s best, although on an upward trajectory that has kept criticism of a stuttering start to the season to a minimum.
The easing injury burden helps, especially with key players Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria fit to face the Blues. Michael Carrick could make the bench, while Wayne Rooney serves the final game of a three match suspension.
“Ander was already fit for the last game and, with Di Maria, I said after the match that normally it [the injury] should not be so heavy and it’s not heavy,” said van Gaal on Friday.
“So he has trained. It was only the first day that he didn’t train so he has trained from Thursday, no problem. I’m sorry to say no other players are returning. Even, for example, I let Michael Carrick play this evening in London for the reserves because I believe that he needs that. He needs to play matches, especially when you are five months injured. He told me it was his first appearance in the second team. Antonio Valencia and Jonny Evans are not fit enough.”
Mourinho is without injured striker Loic Remy and midfielder John Obi Mikel, while Cesar Azpilicueta is suspended after being sent off against Crystal Palace last weekend. The Chelsea coach has already declared Diego Costa injured, although few in Van Gaal’s camp will be surprised if the Brazilian-Spaniard makes the Chelsea team. German midfielder Andre Schürle could start up front if Costa cannot start.
“If Diego is ready to play, he plays. I still don’t know who is available. Normally two days before the game I know the team, I have no doubts, everything is clear in my brain,” said Mourinho.
“Man United are in a fantastic position. You are in a difficult position when you don’t have the funds to be behind the rebuilding of a team. When you have the funds you have to buy well and coach them well, and I know Louis is capable of buying and coaching them well so they are fine. But we are very confident about ourselves.”
Mourinho, too, is keen to play down talk of personal rivalry, although the thought-experiment abounds of what might have been if United had appointed the Portuguese to the job he truly wanted last summer.
“I’m not playing against Louis on Sunday, Chelsea are playing against United. During the match I have no time – and he has no time – to look around and see who the opposition manager is,” insists Mourinho.
“Before the match and after the match he is one of my big friends in football and I will always be happy to see him. I’ve never hidden what I feel about him. As a young coach to be working four consecutive years at a club like Barcelona – one with Mr Robson and three with Louis – was very important.”
On Sunday, however, it is the pupil who remains favourite to take the spoils.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Felipe; Matic, Fabregas; Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Costa
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Smalling, Janko, Fletcher, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Anderson, Januzaj, Wilson
Chelsea: Cech, Zouma, Aké, Drogba, Salah, Ramires, Christensen, Boga, Baker, Solanke, Drogba
United 70 – Draw 50 – Chelsea 48
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: G Beswick, D Cann
Fourth Official: C Foy
United 0-1 Chelsea
£1 bet club
Chelsea to win 1-0 and Costa to score @ 20/1
Running total: £(-)9