The last time Jose Mourinho managed at Anfield, it looked as if his days as an elite manager might be over.
His Manchester United team had been beaten and beaten well. Liverpool, 3-1 winner thanks to two goals from substitute Xherdan Shaqiri, were top of the table and flying, superior in every department against a side that had lost its spark, lost its legs and, it seemed, fallen out of love with its manager.
Mourinho left the ground that day humbled, unable to muster even a snidey comment in his post-match press conference. Liverpool, he admitted, was the team he wished United were.
Perhaps we knew then that the gig was up.
He was sacked within 48 hours. United was sixth in the Premier League, closer to the bottom of the table than the top.
It had looked like the dream marriage – a box-office club with a box-office manager – but it had ended in divorce. And a messy one, at that.
Wednesday will mark two years since that chastening afternoon in front of the Kop and guess what? Mourinho is back, ready to resume his role as Liverpool’s arch-nemesis.
Reports of his demise, it seems, were exaggerated.
Humbled at United, he has rediscovered his swagger at Tottenham. The Londoners arrive on Merseyside top of the table, above Liverpool on goal difference and playing with a purpose and a structure that suggests that they are gearing up for a title challenge.
You can tell they are, in fact, by the way, their manager says they aren’t. Do not believe him, not for one second.
“We are not even in the race, so we’re not a horse,” Mourinho said after the goalless draw at Chelsea last month. “We’re a pony.”
Who is he kidding? Spurs may not have been many people’s pick for the title this season – not after the way they struggled the last term, both before and after Mourinho replaced Mauricio Pochettino last November – but they have built up plenty of momentum in the early months of the season.
They lost their opening league game of the campaign, a dire 1-0 home surrender to Everton, but are unbeaten in 11 since.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, with 19 goals and 12 assists between them, have grabbed the glory but their success has been built on some Mourinho classics; aggression, defensive organization, and counterattacking threat.
Spurs, with 10 goals conceded, have the best defensive record in the league this season. Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld are on song after dips in form, Eric Dier and Serge Aurier have improved too, while the signings of Sergio Reguilon and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, a classic Mourinho midfielder if ever there was one, have solved clear problems.
They are not perfect. They do not dominate games as Liverpool or Manchester City can. Or even as Pochettino’s Spurs could. They are certainly less comfortable in possession.
Not that that will bother Mourinho. “There are a lot of poets in football,” he once said, “but poets don’t win many titles.”
Mourinho, of course, has won titles – three of them in England. His record, as he regularly reminds us, is worthy of respect.
It is five-and-a-half years since his last one, though. He has been sacked twice since, hounded out by two of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’. Neither Chelsea nor United shed many tears when he left.
Tottenham felt like a gamble, on everyone’s part. For Mourinho it was a chance to show that he was today’s man as well as yesterday’s, that he could still mix it with the Jurgen Klopp’s and the Pep Guardiolas of this world; for Spurs, it was a roll of the dice, an attempt to shed that ‘nearly men’ tag with the appointment of a proven winner. You can say what you want about the north Londoners, but they have never lacked ambition.
They have already beaten United, City, and Arsenal this season, and drawn with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but Wednesday brings the latest and biggest examination of their title credentials.
Liverpool has not lost in the league at Anfield since April 2017, a run of 65 matches. In that period, only 11 teams have left with even a point.
Spurs were one of those, drawing 2-2 thanks to a late Kane penalty in February 2018, but they have lost on both of their visits since, both by a 2-1 scoreline.
Liverpool has plenty to contend with, with almost an entire starting XI sidelined through injury. There will be no Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez to protect them against Kane and Son, no Thiago Alcantara to control the midfield. Diogo Jota, the signing of the summer, will be absent, while the experience of James Milner will be missed too. Naby Keita and Joel Matip, substituted at the weekend, remain doubts.
Both sides dropped points on Sunday, Spurs throwing away a lead at Crystal Palace shortly before Liverpool were held away to strugglers Fulham. Neither side was at their best, though both will feel they could, and perhaps should, have won.
It means they enter this clash neck and neck, separated only by goal difference, and narrowly clear of Leicester City, Southampton, and Chelsea, the surprise chasers. Win, and Tottenham will really start to believe. And we know how much Mourinho loves to get one over on Liverpool – who could ever forget his party-pooping masterclass with Chelsea in 2014?
It is set up to be a classic under the lights, with 2000 noisy Liverpudlians making themselves heard. Their side should respond. Every great competitor needs an enemy, they say, and Liverpool has not had many like Mourinho down the years.
Two years on from his lowest ebb, Mourinho is back at Anfield and back on top.
There to stay? We will soon find out.
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