03 May 2017

Mourinho's Machiavellian machinations are manifest...

Zlatan? Injured. Season-ending knee-surgery. Fellaini? Banned, courtesy of a head-butt on Agüero. Bailly, Shaw, Rojo? All ruled out to injuries. Pogba, Smalling, Jones? Facing late fitness-tests. Either side of Man U's trip to the Emirates? Europa League semifinal matches against Celta Vigo. Mourinho would love to claim some kind of silverware, surely, especially in a season in which one rival—Guardiola will go home empty-handed—and another—Arsène may just do the same. Surely, he will then focus his efforts on that Europa League. Les jeux sont fait, then. The cards are dealt, the table is set, the stars have aligned: Arsenal will lose on Sunday.

We've been down this road, haven't we? The only hoodoos missing from the mix are trips to Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge; still waiting in the wings as of this writing is the possible assignment of Mike Dean or Anthony Taylor to the match. Martin Atkinson is doing his best imitation of Monty Burns as we speak. If Man U have any U18s to call up, well, we're done for.

More seriously, more to the point, we should approach this one with confidence. Setting aside the setback at White Hart Lane (where, let's be honest, we had to expect a loss), we have got to seize any source of confidence that we can find. The unavailability of various players for whatever reason and Mourinho's own admissions—not to mention our own ambitions—add up to urgency at our end. Man U, who also have to visit White Hart Lane, do have to set priorities. Here's Mourinho, speaking of his current club's chances of qualifying for Champions League play should they win the Europa League:
In relation to the Premier League, I think it’s too late because in the past month of April we played nine matches, seven of them in the Premier and we had too many problems, too many players absent. Because of that we had players having to play 750-800 minutes of football and we paid the price. We played against fresh teams and we were in accumulation.In this moment, the perspective is different because the Europa League becomes even more important for us. Of course, it depends on the result and the way we analyse the situation tomorrow after the match, but if we have to rest players next weekend we are going to do that.
If Mourinho is to be trusted—yes, that's a rather large "if"—we at our end would do well to wish Mourinho's minions against Celta Vigo on Thursday, Should they concede any goals or, heavens forfend, lose, all bets are off for Sunday. On the other hand, a confident win would do wonders for our own aspirations.

Ordinarily, I don't like to engage in such dismal science. I would love nothing more than to take to the pitch against any opponent believing that we'll triumph. These are not ordinary times. Our hopes of finishing in the top-four—our hopes of rebuilding a squad that can compete if not contend—depend on winning on Sunday. Even if we do, we still have to hope that Man U and Liverpool drop points elsewhere in the run-in. If we can't qualify for Champions League play in 2017-18, keeping Alexis and Özil gets a lot harder and a lot more expensive; bringing in reinforcements gets even harder and more expensive.

Even as I suggest all of this, I ponder the mind of Mourinho. Against any other manager, he might be counted on to do the right thing for his squad. Against Arsène, however, one never knows. Would Mourinho cut off his nose to spite his face? Would he sacrifice a chance at silverware at the altar of annoying Arsène? I wouldn't put it past him. His mind-games are legion. As always, he's injected massive amounts into upgrading his squad. Still, he barely clings to relevance. As his conspiratorial mind froths and spittles, which priority will emerge—adding to his trophy-haul or embarrassing Arsène?

In the end, I suspect that the grandiose glory-hound that is Mourinho will see Champions League qualification as marginally superior to his own masturbatory fantasy of embarrassing Arsène. He'll focus on getting to that Europa League final as his only chance at silverware in this season. He'll field an XI that maximises his chances at advancing to that final.

Whether we at our end can seize the opportunity is another question.