SUNDERLAND, England -- So maybe Jose Mourinho does have a softer side after all. As Manchester United cruised to a 3-0 victory against Sunderland, he not only saved Luke Shaw from a potential red card by substituting the left-back on 61 minutes, but also made sure that the watching world noticed his deliberate and exaggerated bear hug as the player crossed the touchline.
Shaw has received precious little warmth and affection from Mourinho in recent weeks. The 21-year-old started this season as a regular in the team, but a bad day at the office during a 3-1 defeat at Watford in September sent the £28 million defender off on a slippery slope with his manager. It's been firmly downhill for him ever since.
Mourinho's embrace for Shaw, and a pat on the back as he walked off the pitch at the Stadium of Light, may well prove to be a turning point for the young full-back. The United manager might have played to the cameras, but whether he did or not will be irrelevant to Shaw, who will simply be grateful that Mourinho has finally given him a break -- and a public one at that.
If Mourinho was to write down the qualities required of his perfect left-back, he would have pace, confidence to go forward, be good in attacking areas, strong in the tackle and defensively astute: basically, a modern-day version of Ashley Cole. Shaw possesses all of those attributes with the exception of the last one, defensive intelligence, which just happens to be the most important of them all.
Mourinho knows this, having raised the issue in the wake of Shaw's return to action during Tuesday's 1-1 draw at home to Everton. Shaw did well that night, with his stoppage-time shot leading to the penalty from which Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored United's equaliser, but Mourinho quickly took the wind out of his sails by criticising his "football brain" and suggesting he only impressed "when he was reacting to my voice."
It was a different story after this game, however. Shaw gave United width and penetration down the left flank during the first half, and inside the opening 60 seconds of the second period, his defence-splitting pass teed up Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add to Ibrahimovic's opener and put the visitors 2-0 ahead.
If Shaw was being tested by Mourinho, he passed it -- albeit against the worst team, by some distance, in the Premier League -- and he only made way for Daley Blind to spare him a second yellow card from referee Craig Pawson. So was Mourinho finally happy with the recent target of his ire?
"Yes, he played well, played solid," Mourinho said. "The opposition was not creating problems, but he was solid, read the game well to go in there when Mkhitaryan was inside.
"It was a good hour for him. I thought about a half-time change but that was too harsh for him. I wanted him to play a little bit more. I took him off because the referee was under a little bit of pressure, so no risk. We need him to be available. It was good to protect him, but was also good for him to play one hour with a good solid performance and no mistakes, so I'm really pleased for him."
Mourinho's ultimate decision on Shaw, publicly at least, will have to wait until the summer, but there is no doubt that the England defender possesses the talent to be United's first-choice left-back.
Marcos Rojo, who once again impressed at centre-half, is too rash when he plays at left-back, while Blind is too slow. Blind reads the game better than Shaw and Rojo offers greater height, but when the likes of former United defender Gary Neville describes Shaw as a "sensational talent with many years in front of him," he's clearly somebody worth persevering with.
With his United contract due to expire in June 2018, however, Shaw is not blessed with time to prove his manager wrong. There are flaws in his game that must be ironed out, such as a lack of defensive concentration against better teams than Sunderland, and Mourinho wants to see more on the training ground and an improvement in the player's all-round attitude.
But perhaps the last week has signalled a changing picture. Mourinho and Shaw met Monday for candid talks which preceded his return to the squad for the first time in weeks. He has now started, and impressed, at the Stadium of Light and is almost certain to face Anderlecht in the Europa League quarterfinal first leg in Brussels on Thursday due to United's injury problems.
So his future is in Shaw's hands, but Mourinho is not the kind of manager who will offer many more chances. This was a good day for Shaw, however, and a good day for United. They remain in the hunt (just about) for a top-four finish after completing a 3-0 win on Sunday and go into Thursday's European clash knowing that they have a clear route opening up to next month's final in Stockholm.
After all of his problems this season, Shaw could yet end the campaign playing in a major final next month, and if he does, he will have taken a giant step toward that with his performance against Sunderland.