IT was vintage Jose Mourinho as he opened up both barrels to the press when it came to the issue of Paul Pogba.

“It’s a big lie that the relationship [between us] is not good, a big lie that we don’t communicate, a big lie that we don’t agree with his position and his involvement in the dynamic of the team,” he said on Friday. “So be objective and say what we all know. In the last couple of matches he did not play well. Period. End of story.”

The odd thing here is that the genesis of all this was a story by a journalist traditionally close to Mourinho’s camp who underscored how Pogba had been affected by the arrival of Alexis Sanchez and how he wasn’t contributing as had been hoped on the pitch, possibly because of his position. Global media naturally followed – it is United, after all – and the French newspaper L’Equipe suggested Pogba regretted his return to Old Trafford while the Madrid press did what the Madrid press do: they linked him with a move to the Bernabeu.

Look at Mourinho’s words more closely and he is basically saying his relationship with Pogba is great but the player has been poor of late. That could be down to a couple of bad days at the office or it could be down to his position on the pitch. Except then Mourinho lambasted “the hundreds of pundits in England” who keep saying Pogba should not be playing in front of the back four in a 4-2-3-1.

Mourinho insisted this was not the case, that United had played a 4-3-3, with Nemanja Matic in a holding role, Jesse Lingard centre-right and Pogba in his centre-left slot. But if that is the case – and heat maps, tracking software and simply watching the game, even on TV, suggest otherwise – then the question of Pogba’s under-performance remains. And if Mourinho is playing him where he wants and how he wants, why is he doing badly?

Pogba has started 16 Premier League games – he missed yesterday’s FA Cup match at Huddersfield – and has contributed nine assists, third-most in the Premier League behind Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane, but on a per-minute basis, he has out-performed both and he doesn’t have the luxury of playing for a free-scoring side.

When you play at that level and then drop off, questions will be asked. And while Mourinho is right that the punditocracy is filled with folks who parrot the same lines and jump on whatever popular narrative (real or false) is out there, it is equally true that, for whatever reason, since Sanchez’s arrival, Pogba has fallen off a cliff. And that is something that needs to be addressed.

IT was all so easy on Friday night for Antonio Conte in Chelsea. The match summed up just what is wrong with the FA Cup right now. Both clubs have bigger fish to fry and it showed. Hull played just three of their 11 most used players this season, partly through injury, partly through suspension, partly because three of them (Ola Aina, Fikayo Tomori and Michael Hector) are on loan from Chelsea and partly because they are one spot above relegation to League One and that takes precedence. Conte rested a slew of regulars and by the end of the 4-0 win there were two 17-year- olds, Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi, on the pitch.

It stands to reason because in the next five games Chelsea’s season – and Conte’s future, not so much in terms of whether he stays or goes, but where he will end up – will likely be decided. Barcelona come to visit on Tuesday and that is followed by trips to Manchester to take on City and United in consecutive weeks. There is a home game against Crystal Palace (who beat them at Stamford Bridge in each of the last two seasons) and then the return leg against Barca at the Camp Nou.

By the time the run is over, Chelsea could be in the Champions League quarter-final and firmly ensconced in the top four. Or they could be sliding towards Arsenal in sixth place and out of Europe.

The good news about Barca’s visit? They may be undefeated in La Liga, but in recent games haven’t quite looked the juggernaut you would expect. Maybe it is down to the humongous lead over Real Madrid (17 points going into the weekend). Atletico may be seven points back, but somehow that doesn’t feel quite as urgent.

Ahead of yesterday’s trip to Eibar, they had won just one out of their last five by a margin of more than a single goal. Ernesto Valverde seems to be using La Liga as a canvas on which to experiment and to find the right scheme to fit Philippe Coutinho, who is cup-tied in Europe. The problem is that too often it feels like low-intensity, pre-season, trial-and-error stuff. Against Chelsea, that won’t be enough.

TOTTENHAM travel to Rochdale today in the FA Cup and the contrast with their trip to Juventus last Tuesday could not be more obvious. Their opponents relaid the pitch, at a cost of £500,000, after Mauricio Pochettino voiced his concerns over it. Somehow you can’t imagine Juventus, finalists in two of the past three Champions Leagues, being quite so deferential to a visiting manager.

Spurs earned universal plaudits for their performance in Turin, but the challenge now for Pochettino is to channel that enthusiasm without it turning into overconfidence. True, 2-2 away is an excellent result in a two-legged format. It basically means all you have to do at home is keep it tight and avoid defeat. And, yes, Tottenham dominated Juventus for about 80 minutes.

But it is equally true they came within a crossbar of conceding three goals in a single half. And that, defensively, they showed the same vulnerabilities that have caused them to either throw away or nearly throw away points in the past. Right now, Toby Alderweireld – who may or, more likely, may not be fit for while – is perhaps his most important player not named Harry Kane.

Pochettino is saying all the right things, starting with today’s trip to the League One outfit. “If you want to win titles and be one of the best teams in Europe, the game against Rochdale is as important as the game against Juventus,” he said.

Truth be told, you suspect that if they have to self-destruct – and he is probably budgeting for one or more “Spursy” days between now and May – he would much rather it be today than against Juve next month.