MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - When Manchester United went in at half-time on Saturday, trailing Manchester City 2-0, manager Jose Mourinho had a blunt message for his players who had been totally outclassed as their rivals closed in on the Premier League title.
“He said ‘we don’t want to be the clowns who are sort of standing there watching them get their trophy’,” said defender Chris Smalling.
United’s response was anything but clownish - they scored twice inside the opening 10 minutes of the second half to level the game and then Smalling grabbed a 69th minute winner as City’s planned title celebration was put on hold.
Key to the turnaround were two players who have, in recent weeks, begun to be seen as expensive problems rather than quality solutions for Mourinho.
Paul Pogba, the French midfielder, had been poor in the opening 45 minutes but it was his two goals that put United back in the game.
Pogba went into the game after City manager Pep Guardiola told reporters that he had been offered the midfielder by his agent Mino Raiola in January.
“If the accusation from his agent is that he wants to go to other clubs, his price has gone up,” quipped Mourinho after the game.
Pogba has been struggling to produce his undoubted talent at United with question marks over his best position and rumours that he and Mourinho have not always seen eye-to-eye.
But his quality was certainly evident in the second half and he said he was motivated by the need to save face for United fans.
“I didn’t want to lose against City, the loss from last season is still in my mind. If they won they are champions, for all the fans it would be like death. To lose against City and to see them celebrate, I couldn’t let that happen,” he said.
“At half time in the dressing room we said we have nothing to lose, 2-0 let’s make it.
“After a second half like this, we have to do that all the time. If we did we would be up there with City, and maybe even in front,” he added.
Pogba’s first goal was a simple finish after a well-timed run was picked out by Ander Herrera chesting a ball from Alexis Sanchez into his path.
His second was a superbly angled header from a Sanchez cross and indeed it was the Chilean, as much as Pogba, who galvanised United in their comeback, providing the delivery into the area for Smalling’s winner as well.
Sanchez, who joined United from Arsenal in January, has yet to settle in, as was evidenced in his ineffective first-half display. But after the break he was back to the jinking, clever and incisive player that he is known to be.
Mourinho spoke about how United have improved this season in all areas and how that curve needs to continue next season.
If Pogba and Sanchez can deliver on a regular basis performances like the one they produced in the second-half of Saturday’s memorable win, perhaps the talk of United being eclipsed for years to come by City may turn out to be premature.
Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Pritha Sarkar