If Jose Mourinho can't muster even a vague response to Manchester United's being equipped for a title challenge this season, he might as well give up now. Worryingly, all his talk and behaviour during the preseason so far suggest that he already has.
Ahead of Wednesday night's friendly against AC Milan, Mourinho refused to answer the question of whether he believed United could win the title. Some would argue he's damned either way, as his squad clearly isn't superior to Manchester City's. They've added £60 million Riyad Mahrez to the side that ran away with the league last season. If Mourinho suggests that United will win the league, he will be mocked, and if he claims they won't -- as his refusal to answer the question suggests -- he will be berated for being negative.
Yet maybe it's worth people having a pop at him now for any over-confidence if it means some enthusiasm is created among the fans and players. For the 55,000 people who've already bought season tickets for the coming season, plus the thousands more who have membership, what incentive are they being given if Mourinho is already throwing in the towel?
Imagine if Mourinho came out and defiantly claimed that this side was good enough, that this was his third season at the club, that things were clicking into place and that he had belief in his squad's capabilities, what impact would that have on the supporters? While those on social media who attack Mourinho for everything and spend every day avidly checking the latest transfer news would scoff, it would have an impact on the match-going crowd.
From the beginning of the 2006-07 season, when United were roundly written off, chants of "Mourinho, are you listening? You better keep our trophy glistening. We'll be back in May to take it away. Walking in a Fergie wonderland" could be heard every week.
That belief from the fans meant something, and it was exciting to be part of it. Nobody thought Sir Alex Ferguson would overthrow Mourinho, having added only Michael Carrick to a team that was soundly beaten by Chelsea the year before; after all, the Blues had added Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andrey Shevchenko to their team of champions. Top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy left for Real Madrid, and Ferguson didn't sign a striker in his place, yet the manager fostered confidence in his bunch of largely unproven players, the fans followed suit, and United went on to comfortably win the league.
Ferguson's unproven side, in that season following a World Cup, had little to get excited about on paper, but the legendary manager still managed to create buzz. Mourinho, by contrast, has a world champion in his team, yet when he's asked about this, he's more bothered about explaining why Paul Pogba shined for France and not United. Any other manager would celebrate his best outfield player returning from a major tournament as a winner, but Mourinho sees it as justification to go on the defensive.
Upon getting the job he had always wanted as United manager, openly fawning over the club and players after his Madrid side robbed them of a Champions League quarterfinal in 2013, you'd imagine that the manager might be able to perk up a little. Yet his general approach to life at United is that the glass is half-empty.
Whatever the reason for Mourinho's misery, it wouldn't harm him, the fans or the players if he could look on the bright side every once in a while. How are the supporters supposed to be optimistic if the manager is publicly playing down their chances? There are reasons to be positive, and the fans are eager for any glimmer of hope to cling to, yet Mourinho repeatedly writes off his own team.
It is possible to see things from the manager's side, given how eager people are to bring him down. There is the sense that he would be setting himself up for an embarrassing fall if he were to get too carried away, while other managers appear to get off without the same criticism.
When you compare Mourinho to Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, who have spent three and four years at their clubs, respectively, but won nothing, you might see why Mourinho has his nose out of joint when they are roundly praised and he isn't. Imagine if he were taking his players to line up to celebrate in front of the Stretford End after a 2-2 draw with West Brom. Imagine if he were arguing domestic competitions were not a priority (as Pochettino did) when repeatedly failing to do anything of note in the Premier League or in Europe. Klopp's highest league finish is fourth, while Pochettino's is second in one out of four seasons.
That said, it doesn't excuse how glum the manager has been in every news conference and interview this summer. He doesn't need to walk out in front of the media giddy with excitement, but he could show some optimism.
"I go [into] the Premier League [season] without lots of players," he said last week. "But it is what it is, and we have to try and make the best out of it with the players we have here."
It's hardly inspirational talk required for the players who are on the tour fighting for their place in the first team. For example, Andreas Pereira played very well against the San Jose Earthquakes, especially considering he has been away from the club for a couple years now, yet Mourinho summed up his performance as "OK."
Pereira is one of the several hugely talented players to graduate from United's academy who have a real passion for the club and could make a difference on the pitch. Financially, United are never going to compete with City, so instead of sulking about it, Mourinho should look to what he has in the squad and work out a way to turn them into winners.
United couldn't compete with Chelsea financially either when Roman Abramovich first joined the league, but Ferguson didn't give up. He made the best of what he had and created a team that won the league three years on the bounce, played in two Champions League finals and added some more winners' medals to his players' necks.
Ferguson has respectfully taken a step back away from the club in the years since his retirement, rarely giving interviews and offering nothing but praise for the managers who have replaced him. But what United supporters wouldn't give for Fergie to have a word in Mourinho's ear to shake him out of this slump.
A change in attitude obviously wouldn't guarantee United the title, but it certainly wouldn't do any damage. It would at least allow a sense of expectation that could make things more fun for the fans. But if he carries on the way he is, he can't expect the players or supporters to get behind him, and as a result, his third season syndrome will be repeated at United.