Jose Mourinho has never been one who worries about style points, but at the same time, Mark Hughes could find himself out of a job come Monday if he fails to get Southampton three points from Saturday’s match versus Manchester United at St. Mary’s.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Mourinho stole the limelight for his water-bottle tossing antics following Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time goal that secured a spot for United (6-3-4) in the knockout round of the Champions League with a match to spare, but Hughes enters this match hanging onto his position by the barest of threads.
Southampton (1-5-7) are at the top of the drop on eight points, ahead of both Cardiff City and Fulham on goal difference, and winless in their last 11 across all competitions (0-6-5). Saints supporters were expecting something better when Hughes was tasked with rescuing the club from the drop last term.
He nearly performed an ignominious double of getting two teams relegated as he was sacked from Stoke City prior to his arrival at St Mary’s, where he took eight points from the final five matches to get them three points clear in 17th.
That poor form has carried over to this term, which makes the three-year contract he signed before the season all the more of an albatross. Southampton have gone 3-7-12 in 22 league matches under Hughes’ watch, and the gaffer has claimed just 31 points from his last 39 Premier League contests.
The Times has reported former QPR and Leicester City manager Paul Sousa could be a candidate to replace Hughes. But the current boss, who is a staggering 1-to-8 favourite among oddsmakers as the next manager to get sacked, struck a combative tone in Thursday’s news conference.
“It’s water off a duck’s back. In this day and age there are media outlets that find it’s in their interests to try to set the agenda,” said Hughes, who could be the first manager in Premier League history to be sacked by two different clubs in the same calendar year. “I’m not the only manager of a club down the bottom, maybe underachieving at the moment, but I seem to be the only one getting the brunt of the speculation.
“The reality is if people surmise a manager is under pressure almost every sports agent in the country will put forward clients and try to get in contact with the powers that be, saying ‘This is the right guy if you are thinking of making a change.'”
The irony of Hughes losing his cool in their 1-1 draw versus Watford, in which Southampton had a goal incorrectly chalked off for offsides on a call VAR would have easily overturned had it been in use, made a tight circle Tuesday in their scoreless Carabao Cup tie versus Leicester City.
Steven Davis had a goal disallowed after VAR ruled Nathan Redmond committed a handball in the build-up, and Southampton’s luck went from bad to worse just before the spot kicks when Leicester keeper Danny Ward nudged Manolo Gabbiadini’s free kick onto the woodwork. Gabbiadini’s miserable day concluded and Southampton’s stay in the Carabao Cup ended when Ward saved his attempt from the spot in the sixth round of penalty kicks.
Hughes made five changes to the starting XI that suffered a 3-2 loss at Fulham last weekend that added to the inquest about his future. The manager is hoping top goal-scorer Danny Ings will be available for this match.
Ings, who has four of Southampton’s 10 league goals, was forced off in the first half of the draw against Watford and missed the last two contests.
As Hughes twists in the wind, Mourinho defiantly spits into it. Manchester United’s rollercoaster season continued Tuesday at Old Trafford in a turgid match versus Swiss side Young Boys, with Fellaini – the throwback player Mourinho has protected like a son from the critics – controlling a cross from Romelu Lukaku at the top of the box and scoring in the 91st minute for a last-gasp 1-0 victory.
Mourinho, who had cut a frustrated figure in the coach’s box much of the match, had a celebration that was as much catharsis as happiness, swinging a crate of water bottles and slamming it onto the ground. And ever ready to remind reporters of his track record of success, Mourinho was quick to point out he retained his 100 percent mark of advancing to the final 16 of the Champions League.
“For some of my lovers I just want to say for the ones that like stats: 14 seasons in the Champions League, 14 times qualified through the group phase,” Mourinho crowed. “Never one of my teams stay behind in the group phase. The season I didn’t play Champions League, I won the Europa League.”
Yet the track record also hides lineup decisions that continue to confound as United enter this match in seventh place and seven points adrift of fourth. Lukaku and Paul Pogba both started the match on the bench, with Fellaini and Fred the preferred choices to flank Nemanja Matic. Alexis Sanchez did not make the 18-man squad as rumours of an irreparable rift between the Chile international and Mourinho persist.
And all of those decisions would have been ripe for second-guessing had keeper David De Gea not made one of the top saves of his career for either club or country in the 70th minute, diving to his right to claw out a shot by Ulisses Garcia that took two deflections and seemed destined to bounce inside the left post.
“From my position I think David’s save looks a phenomenal save,” said Mourinho two days before the team exercised an option to keep De Gea between the sticks through next season. “A save that only the best goalkeeper in the world does and gives his team the possibility to win the match. He’s a world-class player. He’s the best goalkeeper in the world and we need the best goalkeeper in the world and you need also some other players who are the best in the world. In this case, we have the best goalkeeper in the world and I know that he wants to stay.”
The win also served notice Mourinho prefers Phil Jones to partner in central defence with Chris Smalling over Eric Bailly while Victor Lindelof is sidelined. The Sweden international is not expected to be back until at least Boxing Day with a hamstring injury.
United are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) against Southampton in all competitions and carry a 363-minute shutout streak in league play since Charlie Austin scored an 87th-minute winner for the Saints in a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Jan. 23, 2016. The Red Devils won 1-0 in last season’s corresponding fixture on Lukaku’s first-half goal.
Manchester United are 28-6-7 versus Southampton in the Premier League era and are unbeaten in nine (7-2-0) in all competitions at St Mary’s since a 1-0 defeat in 2003.
Per Bet365, United are 10/11 favourites to claim all three points and perhaps begin a climb up the table. There are 13/5 odds on the sides splitting the points, which still may not be enough to save Hughes, and Southampton have 7/2 odds on pulling off a win that could prevent a stay of execution for the gaffer.
Oddsmakers are unsure which way this match will trend offensively as both over and under 2.5 goals have 10/11 odds. They seem to be leaning toward there being goals, though, as there are 3/4 odds on both teams scoring compared to even money for a clean sheet by one or both sides.
Despite a goal-scoring drought that has now spanned United’s last 14 matches, oddsmakers are offering Lukaku as the top option to open the scoring at 9/2 odds. The Belgium international is followed by a trio of teammates as Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are all 6/1 picks. A well-rested Austin and Michael Obafemi are joint 7/1 as Southampton’s top picks along with Pogba.
Lukaku and his teammates also lead the toteboard for scoring over the course of 90 minutes, with the centre forward at 11/8 and his teammates at 15/8. Austin, Obafemi and Pogba have 9/4 odds to put one in the back of the net, while snake-bit Gabbiadini has 13/5 odds to score a goal.
It was borderline comical to hear Hughes be so defiant during his press conference Thursday, especially considering he could not confirm he had the backing of the club’s board. Southampton have been an abject side for most of this term save Ings, and while Austin was properly incensed when the disallowed goal cost the Saints two points, there has been far too little of that fire throughout the side.
Speaking of Ings, the belief is he will be on the bench for this match, hence the belief Southampton will open in a 4-2-3-1. If Hughes does put the Liverpool loanee in his first XI, the Saints would probably open in a 4-4-2.
Yet all of those lineup choices and formations could be rendered moot if United play the match they are capable of playing. While problems still persist at Old Trafford — through Mourinho’s creation and otherwise — there was probably a huge weight lifted off the players collectively by qualifying for the Champions League knockout round with a match to spare.
That break will loom large heading into the holiday fixture list, especially since Mourinho is already down one centre back physically (Lindelof) and apparently a second in trust (Bailly). Then there is the issue of Sanchez, who is probably livid he didn’t make the mid-week 18 and will probably be a fringe player in this contest and get a half-hour at most off the bench.
What United need is a United-type goal, one that answers the cries of “Attack, attack, attack” that will come from the road supporters. The empty seats at Old Trafford versus Young Boys was something Ed Woodward and the board likely took notice, and after a scruffy finish by the publicly underappreciated Fellaini, this team needs a jolt.
Unfortunately for Hughes, that jolt will likely lead to the pink slip that will not be a shock for anyone involved.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester United 2.