The character of this Manchester United side has faced several robust examinations of late but this week is easily their most daunting yet.
United currently sit second behind the Bianconeri on four points in Group H, two ahead of Valencia, who host Young Boys in Wednesday’s earlier kick-off.
Seeing as they could start the game in third, Mourinho will know that dropping more points will ramp up the pressure ahead of the final two games, with failure to qualify for the last 16 almost certain to weaken the Portuguese’s position at Old Trafford.
Mourinho will also know that a repeat of recent defensive displays will leave his players exposed to a potentially humbling night in Italy, having already looked distinctly second-best first time around against Max Allegri’s side.
Anthony Martial’s return to goalscoring form has been hugely encouraging but the Frenchman’s brilliance has almost been undone at times by United’s leaky defence.
That was very much the case in Saturday’s win at Bournemouth. United, once again starting slowly, conceded early when Callum Wilson fired the Cherries into an 11th-minute lead and once again hung on as they withstood a great deal of pressure before hauling themselves back into the contest.
Martial equalised and Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner clinched all three points but another comeback failed to paper over the cracks in United’s defence.
Mourinho was aghast at the frequency with which United squandered possession against Bournemouth after what he described as a ‘phenomenal’ week’s worth of preparation.
“I cannot believe how bad we started,” he told BT Sport post-match. “But I think a few mistakes then created some instability in the team – defensive mistakes which made us unstable to attack.”
Mourinho was right. United were lucky still to be in the game by the time Martial swept home the equaliser. The Red Devils backline was under intense pressure as early as the fourth minute when Wilson found Ryan Fraser, who sped past a committed Chris Smalling only for David de Gea to deny the Scot with a smart stop at his feet.
Then, in the tenth minute, Luke Shaw allowed Wilson to drift past him inside the box and test De Gea once more. Unfortunately, United did not heed the warning as just 20 seconds later, Adam Smith was teeing up Junior Stanislas, whose effort from 12 yards deflected away for a corner.
But United’s attempts to regroup defensively proved disastrous. From the resulting corner, Stanislas, the set-piece taker, ghosted in behind and squared to Wilson for the goal. Once again, United’s failure to track a simple run was alarming, with Juan Mata and Paul Pogba both switching off to allow Stanislas the time and space to find Wilson.
Bournemouth’s opener unhinged United, who looked as though they could concede every time they were faced with a wave of red and black. Of course, credit is due to Bournemouth, who were sharp and intelligent with their runs, but Mourinho will be concerned that even a settled back four of Ashley Young, Smalling, Victor Lindelöf and Shaw have been unable to steady the ship in recent weeks.
United have the weakest defensive record of any team in the Premier League’s top 14 this season and those shaky foundations were once again laid bare during another testing domestic assignment. Perhaps most worrying for Mourinho is what little time United have in which to establish some semblance of stability before going up against one of Europe’s most impressive units in Juventus.
Allegri’s Italian champions struck early at Old Trafford through Paulo Dybala. Again it was a problem down United’s left flank as João Cancelo, Juve’s adventurous right-back, slipped in behind Martial. The Spaniard’s cross led to Dybala – who ghosted past a dozing Nemanja Matić – firing past De Gea.
Assuming United remain unchanged from the win over Bournemouth, Shaw needs better protection from those in front of him, be it Alexis Sánchez, Martial or Pogba. Even though Cancelo is an injury doubt for Wednesday’s game, Juve carry a significant enough threat to expose United and finish them off in a way Bournemouth could not.
It’s a tall order, of course. No team has stopped Juve from scoring at home so far this season and, while United will look to a resurgent Martial co. for attacking inspiration, any in-roads made in the final third will prove irrelevant unless they improve at the back.
United have found clean sheets hard to come by this term but Wednesday must signal a return to the defensive organisation that allowed Mourinho’s men to ship just 28 goals in the Premier League last season.