LONDON: Manchester United could not pretend. Paul Pogba hit a post in their 1-0 defeat by Juventus and the returning Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford in the Champions League. But Juventus were in a different class to United. Victory by two or three or even four goals would not have flattered them.
United continue to look thin in defence, midfield and attack. Veteran Ashley Young is only a stop-gap rightback, a quality centre-back is missing, midfield is misfiring and there is a lack of attacking alternatives on the substitutes’ bench. In all three areas United compare badly with Manchester City and Liverpool – and even maybe Chelsea and Tottenham.
Those weaknesses were exacerbated against Juventus because Romelu Lukaku is continuing to struggle at centre-forward. This is the heart of the problem. United’s tradition is built on attack but when there is no effective leader (like Germany, maybe!) the rest of the team suffers.
The Belgian has gone eight games in all competitions since the middle of September without scoring a single goal for his club. His manager has no option but to keep faith in Lukaku and believe that, one day soon, luck will change.
Mourinho said: ““I think our attacking players did not have, what I say in a funny way, honey in their feet tonight. Things were not happening but everybody tried, everyone was strong mentally and tried until the end.
“I have no criticism of Lukaku. He is a fantastic pro that wants to give everything but his moment is not sweet, not just with the goals, but in his confidence, movement, touch, he is not linking the game well with the team. Could I play Rashford there? But then I don’t have a winger because in this moment we are in a difficult situation [with injuries].
“The only attacking option I had was an 18-year-old lad [Tahith Chong] who I had never played before. You can’t expect a young kid to play so that’s why we didn’t make any changes. Lukaku is a hard-working guy: one day the goal will arrive and the confidence will be back.”
Mourinho then embarked once more on his public campaign to persuade the Glazer family to spend some serious money in the January transfer window. He added: “We knew when the draw was made that we’d be fighting Valencia for second place in the group.”
He said: “How can you reach the Juventus level? The Barcelona level? Real Madrid level? Manchester City level? With the best players. It is not easy. Because many of the players they belong to these top teams, so we work with what we have, we try to improve with what we have.
“On the other side to us was huge quality in people like Cristiano, Dybala, Pjanic but they also had the amazing Chiellini and amazing Bonucci – they could go to Harvard University to give classes about how to be a central defender.
“We try to improve our players but quality is quality. Chris [Smalling] and Victor [Lindelof] had a very positive game. It is the first time Victor plays a game of this dimension, and it was good experience for some of the boys, Rashford, Martial, Lukaku.
The one ray of good news for United was discovering that Valencia had drawn with Young Boys. Their last group game, in Valencia on December 12, can prove decisive.
** Manchester United have been charged by UEFA after fans invaded the pitch during and after the Champions League defeat by Juventus. Several pitch invaders attempted to reach Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo during the match and after the final whistle.
Ronaldo, who was returning to United for the second time since leaving 2009, took a selfie with one of them.
Last month United were fined €15,000 by UEFA for the late kick-off of their match with Valencia at Old Trafford.