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Often spoiling for a spat, Mourinho targets Pogba at United

September 27, 2018

Manchester United's Paul Pogba reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

LONDON (AP) — Whenever Jose Mourinho runs into trouble, there’s always a scapegoat.

In the early years of his managerial career, referees, rival coaches and — of course — the media were the target of Mourinho’s ire.

Then, the Portuguese coach grew more suspicious of perceived foes and relished conflict within his clubs.

The relationship with key players broke down at Real Madrid before he left in 2013. Strained relations led to his second spell in charge at Chelsea ending midway through his second season in 2015. The firing was blamed on the “palpable discord” he created, exacerbated by a public row with the team doctor.

If Manchester United thought it could tame Mourinho in the job he craved for so long, the club was wrong.

With Manchester City outspending United on players and pulling further ahead on the pitch, Mourinho has grown increasingly frustrated with the club’s leadership and his own squad — and ensured the world knows.

Questioning the professionalism of his players has become a trait of Mourinho, a boss calling out his employees in public. There was stinging criticism of defender Luke Shaw’s training regime. Anthony Martial’s commitment to the team was even called into doubt in July because he left the tour of the United States to spend time with his newborn child.

“My family will always come first,” Martial said on social media in a clear rebuke of his manager.

As Mourinho’s mood has darkened — while failing to secure the players desired in the summer transfer window — so has his demeanor.

Talk of a rift with Paul Pogba, the club’s most expensive signing, has simmered for months. Now it has boiled over in public.

Mourinho would be in a position of strength to assert his authority if his team was flourishing. But the early-season unease at Old Trafford has heightened by United being dumped out of the League Cup in the third round for the first time in 11 years with Tuesday’s home loss to second-tier Derby.

It was a third-round game Pogba watched from the stands on the day it was revealed his hopes of leading the team again looked to be over. Mourinho fanned the flames of controversy by announcing the France midfielder had been stripped of the vice-captaincy.

However much Mourinho maintained there had been “no fallout,” the lack of public explanation just fermented the opposite impression. The frostiness between the pair played out in public on Wednesday during a training session. Cameras are usually kept far from the Carrington complex but rights holder Sky Sports was allowed in to film ahead of its Saturday broadcast of United’s game at West Ham.

Mourinho will have known his actions were being caught on camera as he was heard asking a press officer about an Instagram post by Pogba.

If Pogba’s posts from the stands during the Derby game irritated Mourinho, then the midfielder should be confused. From the manner of the player’s signing announcement, which was accompanied by a flashy video, United has seized on his marketability to drive up online interest in the club. Vice chairman Ed Woodward even updates investors on social media growth while delivering the quarterly results.

The flagship recruit for Mourinho’s first season in charge of United two years ago, Pogba cost a then world-record 105 million euros (then $116 million).

Agent Mino Raiola made tens of millions of euros from the transfer. Moving Pogba on again would earn Raiola another bumper pay day and he has publicly discussed the prospect of him leaving Old Trafford.

Whenever United is underperforming — and the team is already eight points behind leader Liverpool after six games — Pogba’s performances often face the most scrutiny. That comes with the price tag.

But World Cup-winning France coach Didier Deschamps used a visit to London for this week’s FIFA Best awards to argue that Pogba is far from being self-centered and is a team player.

“People have this image of someone individualistic, who thinks about himself,” Deschamps said. “He has sometimes been unfairly criticized by the media and felt this aggressive vibe.”

Now the negative vibe seems to be caused by his club coach. Mourinho appears to be always spoiling for a spat, and Pogba is in the firing line.

Given the United coach’s recent history at clubs, the discord is far from surprising. Nor would it be if Mourinho doesn’t enjoy a long career at United.

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