Reality bites for Mourinho's Man Utd as Chelsea defeat caps forgettable month
Oh, well; the optimism among Manchester United fans was fun while it lasted. An excellent start to the season, in which the Premier League's weaker teams were beaten out of sight, has slid into a mire of mediocrity, with two league defeats and a draw in the last month.
The winning start distorted reality and made plenty think United were ready to compete for a title. Not yet. Although it was telling that six of the starters at Chelsea on Sunday were at the club when Sir Alex Ferguson left four years ago, Mourinho is continuing to make improvements and a third-place finish this season would represent progress after sixth position last term, but it all feels a bit flat.
For most fans, optimism evaporates by September. For United's support, it lasted until the start of November, but the defeat at Stamford Bridge leaves United eight points behind Manchester City after only 11 games.
As Ferguson regularly used to say at times like these, titles are not won until the end of the season. United might come back and overhaul that lead and Henrikh Mkhitaryan might be crowned footballer of the year in May, but City's excellence doesn't help the situation. They're like the neighbour who've bought a top of the range, laser-blue Ferrari with their lottery winnings. It's hard to avoid; City are going faster than the rest, just as Chelsea did last season.
There was a faint hope that one team wouldn't pull away and that a dogged United could take advantage to stay in contention for the title, but that is disappearing into the distance. I spoke to Jamie Carragher last week and he said that a title-winning team used to be able to lose six games. His Liverpool team lost just twice in 2008-09 and were still beaten to the title by United; can anyone see City losing six times this season?
Pep Guardiola is as exceptional a manager as he was as a player and United would have gone for him over anyone else, had they not been convinced that he'd done a deal to go to City a year before he moved to the Etihad Stadium.
United continue to lose at Chelsea with alarming consistency; one league win there in the last 16 shows it's not a new problem. Mourinho's side didn't play badly for much of the first half but, despite having had their own issues of late, Chelsea were vastly superior in midfield in the second.
The game's only goal came from Alvaro Morata, a player United would have signed had agent Mino Raiola not worked his wonders to get Romelu Lukaku to Old Trafford. Money talked then and United have plenty of it but it's not buying the success fans hoped for: The biggest trophies have not arrived to match the biggest transfers.
Maybe they'll come in time and Mourinho remains popular among fans. He's managing a side that has missed Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, while other midfielders have failed to step up. Mkhitaryan is suffering from the worst form of his short career at the club and making a fitful impact in matches, while Ander Herrera and Juan Mata both need to have more of an influence.
It's all hugely frustrating for supporters and for Mourinho, who rightly gave his players a verbal roasting after defeat at Huddersfield last month. That was the worst result of this season, but it's United's record against the best teams that suggests there's a glass ceiling that cannot be broken. Mourinho hasn't had a win in seven away league matches against top-six opposition and his side have scored just once in those games.
This is Manchester United we're talking about. Expectations -- not unreasonably -- are higher, especially when you have the highest wage bill and the level of talent United boast, as well as a top manager so consistently successful as Mourinho,
It's not a disaster; United are still second in the table, not sixth as they were for most of last season. The team have scored more and conceded fewer than any other side apart from the four-time champions of England from East Manchester.
United are in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup and have also won four from four in the Champions League. They're far from the best team in Europe, but Mourinho has long taken advantage of the unpredictability of cup football, making such games a priority and negating his opponents to get a win.
Fortunes can turn quickly, too, as Real Madrid will attest: They looked more untouchable than Man City less than three months ago. Moreover, Mourinho can see a less demanding run of games ahead, with Newcastle and Brighton at Old Trafford comprising the new two league opponents.
Before all that, the international break has come at an opportune time and players who have been injured will return after it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on his way back and his return should provide competition for Lukaku, who has stopped scoring. Marcos Rojo, another who picked up a serious injury in April, is also close to a return.
"Try being a Sunderland fan," was the comment which sticks in my mind from another frustrating day as a United fan. Things could be better, but they could also be much, much worse.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.