Manchester United beats Tottenham to spoil Jose Mourinho's Old Trafford return

Almost a year after being fired by Manchester United, Jose Mourinho retuned to Old Trafford Wednesday as manager of Tottenham Hotspur. (Reuters/Andrew Yates)
Almost a year after being fired by Manchester United, Jose Mourinho retuned to Old Trafford Wednesday as manager of Tottenham Hotspur. (Reuters/Andrew Yates)

Not only is Jose Mourinho’s winning start at Tottenham Hotspur officially over, the Portuguese manager’s first Spurs defeat came Wednesday in probably the worst place possible for him — at Old Trafford against Manchester United, the club that fired him one year ago this month.

The Red Devils won 2-1 against a Tottenham side that had beaten West Ham and Bournemouth to start league play under Mourinho, who replaced longtime boss Mauricio Pochettino last month. Spurs also came back to beat Greek side Olympiacos last week in the Champions League, a run of three consecutive victories that had turned their fortunes around after a five-match winless streak in the Prem.

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Marcus Rashford scored both goals for the Red Devils, much to the delight of the home fans. The English striker clashed with Mourinho at times during the latter’s two-plus seasons in Manchester, and heading into the midweek contest, there was a sense that the 22-year-old had a point to prove to his former boss.

Apparently he wasn’t alone. The hosts were all over Spurs early, and it took just over five minutes for Rashford to open the scoring with a blistering low drive that beat keeper Paulo Gazzaniga inside his near post:

If Gazzaniga was at all at fault, the injured Hugo Lloris’ understudy more than redeemed himself when he prevented Rashford from doubling Man United’s advantage, touching another rocket of a shot onto the crossbar.

And when Dele Alli equalized for the visitors after a sublime piece of skill to beat a pair of defenders — a goal that correctly stood after video review for a foul — it looked like Mourinho’s squad might salvage at least a point:

Truth be told, Spurs probably deserved one. For while United’s performance was among the best during this difficult first full season under club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, only a soft — let’s call it what it was — penalty in Rashford’s allowed them to escape with the three points they so desperately needed.

There was little doubt about the outcome of the spot kick when Rashford himself stepped up to take it:

The defeat drops Tottenham two spots to eighth in the table, with Burnley scheduled to visit on Saturday. Meantime, Manchester United leaped all the way from 10th to sixth on the strength of its third triumph in six league outings.

It won’t get easier for United from here, with Solskjaer and Co. set to travel to crosstown rival and defending Premier League champ Man City on Saturday.

Here are three quick thoughts on Wednesday’s match:

Spurs — and Mourinho — can hold their heads high

The Red Devils have had a devil of a season, but Old Trafford is still the biggest stadium in the Premier League and remains a difficult and daunting place to play. Still, Spurs didn’t just sit back and hope to counter.

There was a lot of that, to be sure. But the guests did well to mostly weather the hosts’ early aggression, and they got better as the evening wore on. By the time there were 10 minutes left, there really was a sense that Tottenham might find a late equalizer.

Spurs — and Alli in particular — still appear rejuvenated by the new man in charge, and to his credit Mourinho looks nothing like the brooding figure he was in his final days at United. And there’s no shame that his first loss since returning to the sidelines happened here.

Solskjaer can breath a sigh of relief ...

The Norwegian’s seat had become decidedly hot in the run-up to this one, not least because Pochettino has long been seen as the ideal long-term manager at Man United since before Solskjaer replaced Mourinho on an interim basis a week before Christmas last year.

Solskjaer’s quick start saw the interim tag removed in short order, but it’s been all downhill from there. A loss at home to Mourinho’s Spurs less than 12 months since his sacking could’ve spelled doom for Solskjaer. This win buys him time. The question is, how much?

... But Man City is still the test that counts

As important as Wednesday’s victory was for Solskjaer, one gets the feeling that his immediate future could hinge on what happens Saturday at the City of Manchester Stadium. The Sky Blues will be heavy favorites, of course.

A respectable defeat might be enough to keep United chief executive Ed Woodward from making a change. But the ugly optics of a lopsided defeat could be too much to maintain the status quo, especially with the highly coveted Pochettino still available for now.

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