Jose’s Russian roulette

ONE week to go and it's all over bar the shouting. The title, runners-up and dropouts are decided, but there will still be plenty of end-of-season noise at Anfield and the Emirates. The respective moods of the fans, however, are likely to be very different.

As the Kop will surely acclaim a return to the promised land of the Champions League, Gooners will lament missing out on what had become a rite of passage. The FA Cup final notwithstanding, the mob will be calling for Arsene Wenger to go.

But on another big, unresolved issue for an English club the jury remains closeted in silent indecision: whether Jose Mourinho has been a qualified success at Manchester United or an even more miserable failure than Louis van Gaal.

Put another way, it is whether a man who has put all his eggs in one basket will end up with egg on his face.

With fixture gridlock and injury carnage, prioritising the Europa League as a back entrance to the Big Boys' tournament was understandable, but the Premier League surrender was still premature.

Stronger team selection, especially against Arsenal the previous weekend, might have kept United in the race, but defeat at Spurs confirms it's now the Europa League or, well, more Europa League.

However, we look at it, it is not just high-risk – the Special One is playing Russian roulette with the future of a £2 billion global corporation. And we saw how close he came to doing a Lehman Brothers in the semifinal against Celta Vigo.

Had that last kick of the game been buried in the United net as it should have been, the jury would have reached its verdict: the accused would have been found guilty of the heinous crime of being worse – statistically at least – than Van Gaal!

The unloved Dutchman did reach the Champions League in his debut season and even in his desperate second, he came fifth and won the FA Cup. Mourinho will almost certainly be finishing one place lower in the table and with a lesser trophy – the FA Cup still outshines the League Cup by several tins of Brasso in terms of prestige.

And this after spending £100m more on players and commensurately more hype. The football hasn't been much better either and nor has his man-management.
Although a warmer personality than the impenetrable Dutch headmaster, his treatment of the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Luke Shaw and Sebastian Schweinsteiger was beginning to interest Human Rights Watch.

That said, most of the players prefer him to LVG and there's a feeling that he has moved them on from the lateral obsession of his predecessor – although not by much. And they still can't score.

With too many journeymen, doubts about Zlatan Ibrahimovic's fitness and David de Gea's future, a massive rebuilding job will be necessary – again. He'll get all the money he wants and the Glazers will demand another statement signing for their corporate image. But if there's no Champions League football on the menu, that signing may not want to come.

Sponsorship deals are also riding on the Stockholm final and a lively and youthful Ajax could be dangerous opponents, particularly as United's first choice centrebacks, Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo, are unavailable.

But all the big clubs will be undergoing considerable refurbishment in the summer – even Chelsea. Denied some of the men he wanted at the start of this campaign, Antonio Conte is sure to be rewarded for his phenomenal first season with more cash this time around.

But he faces a battle to hang on to some of his key men – notably Eden Hazard and Diego Costa – just like whoever is in charge of Arsenal next season. Alexis Sanchez will be the first out of the door but if Wenger stays and doesn't replace him, the Emirates will become a bear pit. And almost certainly there will be no Champions league football to dangle before potential recruits.

Barring a slip – yes, that word (!) – of unthinkable proportions at home to relegated Middlesbrough, Jurgen Klopp will have that lure, but whether he can prise more cash out of the Fenway Sports Group – or even wants to (!) – is another matter.

Because of their struggles against lesser lights and the consequent perception of fragility, it gets forgotten that reaching the top four was this season's target. If a scintillating autumn encouraged genuine hopes that a title could be within their grasp, winter, injuries and absences brought a return to reality.

But the irony is that so threadbare is the squad these traditionally careful spenders may have to bring in more players than anyone. Klopp deserves immense credit for achieving the goal on a relative shoestring but no one can see them getting out of their group unless there are major reinforcements.

Simon Mignolet has improved immeasurably but the defence is still a set-piece away from disaster. Two centrebacks and a left back are essential, Coutinho must be kept out of Barcelona's clutches while another creative midfielder and a natural goalscorer are the minimum requirements.

An even more expensive upheaval is likely at Manchester City where third place cannot disguise a season of epic disappointment. Similarly, the weaknesses are at the rear only far more glaring. A major trophy is essential for Pep Guardiola to even begin to restore his reputation so it will be fascinating to see who does arrive.

Of the Big Six, Spurs will probably do the least business but a couple of judicious signings would not go amiss as they have to come to terms with Wembley being their home for a season.

If this season has ended in mild anticlimax, it doesn't lessen the sense of expectation for the next one. Hopefully, it will fill the void that summer is for some people.

If it's a tad premature for this columnist to be signing off from the current campaign, I'll be back in a month hoping to whet appetites for the feast that next season already promises.