José Mourinho spreads a little mischief – and a few Chinese whispers
Despite Wayne Rooney’s fine goal, manager gives blessing to rumoured move to China
Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, who broke his duck – and Stoke City – with a goal scored from a free kick at the Bet365 Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: PA
José Mourinho could not resist the opportunity to spread a little mischief. He had seen Wayne Rooney break Manchester United’s goalscoring record with the splendid free kick that broke Stoke City’s resistance at the death, and most people just wanted to talk about a fine achievement by a player who has received his fair share of criticism this season. Mourinho being, well, Mourinho, he had other ideas.
Offered an opportunity to explain why United’s captain could not possibly view a move to China as a fitting way to end his career, instead Mourinho mounted a defence of football’s newest financial power and ridiculed rivals whose views about the Chinese Super League have been rather less charitable than his. United’s manager mentioned no one by name but presumably it did not escape his attention that his Chelsea were briefly unsettled by Tianjin Quanjian attempting to lure Diego Costa away from the Premier League with a contract reportedly worth £30 million a year. Ask Antonio Conte about the emerging threat from China and Chelsea’s manager will tell you that any player should value the intensity of competition over unimaginable riches.
“But in Wayne’s case, I have no idea. He never mentioned anything to me. You will have to ask him. The future belongs to him and what he wants from his career; the way he wants to end it and enjoy this last part of his career belongs to him.”
While there is no suggestion that Rooney is about to pack his bags for south-east Asia, there have been links with Chinese clubs. After his 250th goal for United rescued a point at Stoke and that 1-1 draw kept Mourinho’s side in touch with the top four, Rooney said his next target is to win back his place in the starting XI. He was on the bench again at the Bet365 Stadium, having lost his place up front to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and has not started a league game for more than a month. The free kick that flew past a stunned Lee Grant from an unlikely position on the left was Rooney’s first league goal since August, and if Mourinho has any doubts over the 31-year-old’s overall worth, a reminder of his ability with a dead ball is unlikely to fool him.
“I think he has more to give us,” Mourinho said. “He has more to give us but again, I repeat, he reached a certain level in his career. Could anyone be critical with Zlatan last summer if he decided to go to China or the US? Could anyone be critical with one guy with such an amazing career? No, and I think with Wayne it is the same. He owns his life, he owns his career. It’s him, his family and his decision. But, of course, I see him with an important contribution for us.”
Rooney will certainly have a better chance of becoming a regular starter again if United’s ruthlessness in the final third does not improve soon.
Although they are unbeaten in their last 17 matches in all competitions, they were wasteful against Stoke, undermining long spells of superiority with shoddy finishing, rushed final passes and wayward crossing. A pattern has developed. After falling behind when Juan Mata inadvertently turned a cross by Erik Pieters past David de Gea in the 19th minute, it beggared belief that it took so long for United to equalise. Champions League qualification depends on them developing greater conviction in attack.
“But a top team has to be much more clinical. We have to have the first chance of the match and bang, 1-0. When you are winning 1-0, next chance: boom, 2-0. We are not doing that enough. We did that in a couple of matches. In the matches we won, I remember, for example, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace, it’s always hard to score goals.”
As long as that remains the case, perhaps there is a place for Rooney.