Tonight‘s match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur may be one of the most crucial games of ‘s career. A loss might mark the point of no return for the United manager.

Or maybe tonight‘s result doesn‘t matter at all because the endgame has already begun. It might seem premature to write Mourinho‘s epitaph just two matches into the season. But at this stage last year it was already obvious that Antonio Conte felt he could achieve little more at Chelsea. He might have hung on for the season but club and manager effectively wrote each other off early on.

The Artist Formerly Known as The Special One is a dead manager walking. He‘s the bookies‘ favourite to be the first sacked Premier League boss of the season, ahead of Mark Hughes, Claude Puel and Neil Warnock.

Mourinho probably wouldn‘t fancy being in that company but the odds seem right. United are currently eyeing up Zinedine Zidane with all the subtlety of Benny Hill ogling a bikini-clad extra back in the day. A ‘Dear Jose‘ letter seems in the offing.

Nothing illustrates the occasionally deceptive nature of statistics better than the current situation at Old Trafford. Last season‘s numbers were impressive.

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The club‘s second-place finish was its best since the title-winning season of 2012/‘13. The goals scored tally was also the best in five years while you had to go back to 2008/‘09 for a season when United conceded less.

Yet the campaign was unsatisfying. The grimly pragmatic football favoured by Mourinho was poor stuff compared to the intricate wizardry of Manchester City or the high-speed swashbuckling of Liverpool.

Epitomised

A frustrating inconsistency was epitomised by the home loss to bottom club West Brom which crowned City champions.

There was also that man who seemed determined to distract attention from the manager‘s achievements. His name? Jose Mourinho.

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Nothing depressed morale on and off the field like his creation of an air of perpetual crisis. Publicly upbraiding players, constantly complaining about a lack of money and apparently unbothered about his inability to get the best out of Paul Pogba, Mourinho rained on his own parade all season long.

Now things are falling apart. Last week‘s defeat by Brighton bore ominous similarities to the early-season Chelsea performances which got Mourinho the sack three years ago. Last Friday‘s bizarre press conference when Mourinho turned up half an hour early and hung around for less then five monosyllabic minutes suggested Trumpian levels of personal insecurity.

Mourinho‘s relationship with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is strained while Pogba keeps hinting at departure. It‘s a mess. Not for the first time, Mourinho‘s main priority is ensuring he won‘t be blamed for it. Woodward, Pogba, Luke Shaw or Anthony Martial, anyone will do in the search for scapegoats. That the likely successor is a man who got his big coaching break at Real courtesy of Mourinho suggests the United boss is being superseded by a new generation.

When Chelsea sacked him in 2007, he was able to bounce back immediately and gloriously with Inter Milan. But which of Europe‘s top clubs would covet Mourinho now?

Tonight he faces a manager travelling in the opposite direction. Mauricio Pochettino has his best years ahead of him and his pick of jobs.

The one black mark against the Argentinian is that he‘s never won a trophy. His decision to stay with Spurs means this barren run may continue.

Defying expectations by securing Champions League football three seasons in a row is a notable achievement. Yet big-time achievement on the pitch has not been matched by big-time ambition in the boardroom. Since Pochettino took over at Spurs, the club‘s transfer spending of £252 million has been dwarfed by that of rivals Manchester City (£756m), Chelsea (£694m), Manchester United (£667m) and Liverpool (£620m).

Arsenal, Everton, West Ham, Leicester City and Southampton have also spent more than Spurs. While newly promoted Fulham forked out £105m pre-season, Pochettino‘s side became the first since the creation of the transfer window 15 years ago to spend absolutely nothing. Spurs don‘t have a war chest, they have a bum bag.

This austerity policy makes Pochettino‘s record even more impressive but it also makes a continued presence among the elite unlikely. Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are probably just one bad season, or one big offer, away from leaving.

Is the same true of their manager? There is a certain comfort in not being expected to win things and in garnering plaudits for over-achievement.

David Moyes was once in that position at Everton while Arsene Wenger occupied a similar niche for some time at Arsenal.

The fate of Moyes at United is a salutary lesson in the difference between competing gallantly and achieving at the highest level. The fate of Wenger is a warning that fans eventually run out of patience with even the most aesthetically appealing also rans.

Pochettino will probably have to move in order to reach his potential. There seems no more congenial destination than the venue he‘ll visit this evening.

A proven top-class Premier League performer whose teams play the kind of attractive football United fans have been pining for since the end of the Ferguson era could be a better bet than Zidane whose experience is limited to a single relatively cosseted environment.

Even if he doesn‘t end up at Old Trafford, Pochettino‘s trajectory is an upward one and his options are plentiful. Things were once like that for Jose Mourinho. These days he seems like King Lear, a once-mighty monarch raving bitterly about the injustice of fate and the ingratitude of his subjects. Tonight, Yesterday‘s Man and Destiny‘s Child do battle. Maybe it‘s not just Spurs fans who should hope for an away victory.

Maybe home fans should too. Defeat might significantly hasten the end of the current Old Trafford turmoil.

It‘s time to put Mourinho out of his misery.

Irish Independent