Mourinho’s visit ends van Gaal’s honeymoon, reminds United what could have been

British TV viewers huddled around their sets on Sunday evenings in the 1980s to watch Bullseye, a darts-themed gameshow whose host, Jim Bowen, became known for his catchphrases.

“Have a look at what you could have won,” Bowen would solemnly order unlucky losers in the final round who had risked all their winnings in a gamble with the hope of taking home a mystery prize, such as a car, speedboat, hi-fi system, or set of encyclopedias. With the grand prize in touching distance, right in front of their eyes, the contestants would depart the studio with only regrets, recriminations and a commemorative tankard.

With Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Sunday, audiences will settle in for a match that risks becoming a “have a look at what you could have won” moment for Manchester United. Eighteen months after a seemingly keen Jose Mourinho was overlooked for the Red Devils’ job that went to David Moyes (it may or may not have made him cry), the Portuguese arrives having molded Chelsea into a team poised to claim another title.

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United? Currently sixth under Louis van Gaal, and if the team loses this weekend, it can surely bid farewell to ambitions of claiming the star prize. United would be 13 points behind Chelsea, who have won seven and tied one of its eight league games.

Van Gaal may need and deserve time to rebuild the roster, rearrange the tactics, and restore self-belief after the ill-fated year under Moyes, but since more than one season without Champions League soccer would be a financial and reputational disaster for United, he doesn’t really have that luxury.

Going from seventh in 2013-14 to winning the league title in this campaign would be an unrealistic leap – but United does need to show it’s a viable top four contender. This week’s hosting of Chelsea followed by November 2nd’s trip to second-placed Manchester City has the feel of an early acid test for the Dutchman’s regime. A road game with Arsenal also looms next month.

The Red Devils have won only three of eight league games. They were a pair of 2-1 wins, over Everton and West Ham, and a 4-0 evisceration of QPR that told us more about Harry Redknapp’s side than Van Gaal’s. If there’s a match that so far seems to encapsulate this United team’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s the 5-3 loss to Leicester City that was an attacking masterclass and a defensive disaster.

He’s loosened the reins these days, but Mourinho’s defensive style has got the better of his friend and former boss Van Gaal’s more offensive approach in the past. Chelsea’s back line has not always convinced, this year but it’s hard to believe it won’t have the solidity to contain United’s forwards and the speed and wit to punish their opponents on the counter-attack, especially if Diego Costa is available to boost a shorthanded attack.

Van Gaal doesn’t have the players or the inclination to attempt a more cautious, containing style that might produce draws against superior opponents. The fitful Juan Mata will no doubt be more motivated than usual, since Mourinho sold him despite the playmaker winning Chelsea’s player of the year award, but relying on Mata feels like putting too much faith in a wildcard. This United iteration is unbalanced, capricious, and reliant on inspiration to compensate for a lack of organization.

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With van Gaal about to complete 10 league matches in charge by facing England’s two best teams, the honeymoon period’s over. Trouble is, he didn’t get to enjoy much relaxation. His early spell against lesser opposition has been a strange mixture of sunshine and showers.

He may eventually turn United into a team that’s both entertaining and reliable, but the club’s decision to choose Moyes not Mourinho has delayed their post-Alex Ferguson rebuilding process by a year. They gambled and lost.