The three-month hiatus has not affected Jose Mourinho's mojo as the Tottenham manager returned with a bang yesterday, setting his sights on the UK Government, the FA's disciplinary committee and lockdown rule-breakers, even if he admitted to his own 'very, very, very small' breach of regulations.
Mourinho prepares to face his former side Manchester United at a deserted Tottenham Hotspur stadium tonight with both sides chasing a place in next season's Champions League.
Spurs are eighth, seven points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and will be without Dele Alli, who is suspended for one match after making a phone video appearing to mock an Asian man during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. The FA deemed it an aggravated breach of anti-racism regulations and suspended the player last week, but Mourinho believes there have been more serious transgressions during lockdown that have gone unpunished. Although he did not name names, Mourinho was thought to be referring to footballers such as Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish, who were caught breaking lockdown rules, as well as politicians including Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's controversial senior advisor.
“I can only say I feel very sorry that Dele is not playing. He has worked so hard during this period and he’s really frustrated that he cannot play in the first match,” said Mourinho.
“I don’t think he deserves a one-match ban compared with wrong behaviours at much bigger dimensions that happened during this period without any consequences.
“Lots of people made mistakes during lockdown. People were saying that for lots of people in football and even outside football, lots of mistakes were made. And I don't like this kind of contradiction. I just feel that it is for everybody or it is for nobody. And I feel it's quite unfair to do that.”
Mourinho expanded on his own transgression when he was photographed close to a number of players near Tottenham's training ground in the early stages of lockdown, although he says he spent just 'one or two' minutes showing midfielder Tanguy Ndombele how to activate the GPS tracking device players use while training.
“I believe it was a very, very, very small mistake that was not reported in the right way. We were monitoring the players at a distance with Wi Fi and GPS. At that time the players were allowed to run in the street and the park, which was what they were doing. I went to help the player put in the GPS. The pictures in the park showed me speaking with a little group of young players, but they were not my players, they were from another football club, in the Championship not the Premier League. I was there at the right distance having a little talk with them and the pictures gave the idea that I was with my players. But it was still a mistake and I apologise.”
Mourinho has more pressing issues, though, with United the first of nine opponents that Spurs face in their bid to finish in the top four. He joked back in February that he wished the season would end there and he could be transported to July 1st, because of the club's extensive injury problems.
Harry Kane, Moussa Sissoko and Heung-Min Son were all out, soon to be followed by Steven Bergwijn and Ben Davies, but they are back in contention now and the first three will all start against United. Mourinho is unsure how long Kane will last, as the England captain works his way back to fitness after surgery on the hamstring he ruptured on New Year's Day. “Harry has not played for more than six months so I don't know if he will last 60, 70, 80 or 90 minutes,” said his manager.
Giovanni Lo Celso is another concern, having sustained in March injury that required the sort of physiotherapy unavailable during lockdown. “He was injured and could not have treatment for two months, so when the training ground re-opened, he could be treated but not enough for him to be 100 per cent.” If Lo Celso passes a fitness test on Friday morning he will be up against Bruno Fernandes, the midfielder United signed from Sporting in January against competition from clubs thought to include Tottenham. But Mourinho said Spurs could not match United, nor fellow big spenders Chelsea, who have already signed Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and Timo Werner from RB Leipzig. While an admirer of his fellow Portuguese - “he's a good player, in a good side”- Mourinho would not elucidate further. “ I cannot confirm, I cannot deny, but it is obvious that there are a certain level of options that are not for us. And we have to admit that, it's a normal situation.
“United bought Fernandes, Chelsea bought Werner and Ziyech, so they can do what they want. It is not our problem. We focus on ourselves, improving our squad in the best way we can, no problem.”
The player under most focus tonight will not be an expensive signing but one of United's home-grown players who is the name on everybody's lips, even if successive UK government ministers keep getting it wrong. Marcus Rashford had just broken into United's first team when Mourinho took over as manager in 2016. The Portuguese is not surprised that Rashford has worked so hard to help children from modest backgrounds like his own, even forcing a u-turn from the UK Government over their plan to abolish free meals for needy children this summer.
“He did amazingly well and I congratulate him for that. It is strange for me that one football player can make it happen, and if it happens it is because the government realises it is the right thing to do. They shouldn't wait for one young player to go public and put pressure on them."