Another Wembley winter date for José Mourinho looms, the latest in a long list of cup finals for the Manchester United manager. His first, though, in the job he craved for so long and perhaps the most significant for some time.
Mourinho won the League Cup three times with Chelsea and on two of those occasions his team went on to win the Premier League during the same season. The same spoils are surely beyond United this year, but a first trophy in the cabinet for the Portuguese in his latest role would put a marker down from the off: first trophy available, first won.
Southampton will have something to say about that, of course, but if Mourinho’s team prevail next month it will only serve to strengthen both the growing confidence of his team and the man himself. It was not exactly a classic way to get to Wembley, but even when Hull took the lead in the first half the outcome always seemed a formality.
Mourinho has a brilliant record in cup finals. He has won 10 out of the 11 his teams have participated in, excluding Super Cups and Community Shields, an ominous omen for Southampton ahead of their meeting next month.
There was no riposte from the Hull supporters as United’s fans sang about their impending visit to the national stadium with volume and confidence. From the outset there was never much belief this tie would be turned around, any faint flicker of an unlikely comeback doused by seven changes made on the home teamsheet.
Even though Hull gave United something to ponder when pulling one goal back, there was still a strange absence of occasion and desire inside the ground. Marco Silva clearly has other things on his mind this season, but for his compatriot it is a first opportunity to taste silverware in new surrounds. Mourinho stood on the touchline with a new haircut and a renewed steel in his eyes. He has joked before about a shaved head prepping him for war, although at one point on a bitter evening he frantically pulled his neck warmer up with a pained face to save his ears from frosting over.
Perhaps not military material then, but Mourinho is doubtless a man on the march to regaining his authority of old. A first trophy at United would strengthen his resolve further, after a week in which Sir Alex Ferguson has reflected on his former rival’s changing temperament.
“He’s calm, he’s in control. The team is mirroring its manager,” said Ferguson in the run-up to this match, and it is difficult to argue otherwise. United were unbeaten in 17 games before this semi-final, and even after Tom Huddlestone scored a penalty in the 35th minute that was dubiously awarded, United never really looked like losing the tie.
Mourinho has been sent to the stands twice this season at Old Trafford – during frustrating draws against Burnley and West Ham – but in recent weeks calm has replaced the undercurrent of vexation.
He would have been well within his rights to be irritated with the first-half performance here. United only had one scoring chance during the opening 45 minutes, but with the exception of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s low shot that David Marshall saved well, they offered little in attack.
Hull were similarly anodyne, but they at least tested the concentration of Chris Smalling who produced a fine tackle on the stretch to deny Michael Dawson a clear scoring chance from close range. The penalty – a surprising decision from Jon Moss – provided a semblance of a competitive match, but United responded in the second half.
Paul Pogba had endured an anonymous 65 minutes before poking in the equaliser that secured United’s place in the final. “Are you watching Merseyside?” was the chant that emanated from the away end.
For Mourinho, it means a reunion with the final of a competition that he has come to love. He expressed concerns beforehand of a congested fixture list should United overcome Hull, as now their league derby with City will have to be rearranged. There may also be busy weeks to come in the Europa League, yet the benefits of a cup success so early in his United career outweigh any other potential negatives.
For Hull, there was at least some late cheer when Oumar Niasse finished from close range to give them a 2-1 victory on the night. This was not Silva’s priority when taking the job from Mike Phelan, but perhaps more alarmingly for the man tasked with steering the Tigers away from Premier League relegation is the impending departure of Robert Snodgrass, who will have a medical at West Ham on Friday.
No such problem for Mourinho, whose United project is beginning to take shape.
The Guardian Sport