Nemanja Matic has sweet memories of playing against Tottenham in an FA Cup semi-final after his glorious 25-yard strike for Chelsea a year ago. The 80th-minute goal led to a final against Arsenal as they won 4-2. Yet Matic is all too aware that disappointment may follow should Manchester United knock out Spurs in the last four on Saturday.
The 29-year-old’s CV shows a chequered experience in finals, including the 2-1 defeat by Arsenal last May. Before that he was an unused substitute when Chelsea won the Cup in May 2010, suspended when they claimed the 2015 League Cup and lost the 2013 Europa League final – against Chelsea – with Benfica.
Matic, though, prefers to point to positives. “I won the cup in Portugal and Slovakia [at Kosice]. I won the Portuguese League, the Premier League two times,” he says before admitting the disappointments give extra motivation to claim the FA Cup.
Recalling that shot that beat Hugo Lloris so memorably, Matic says: “It was amazing I scored that goal – I was really happy and I’ll never forget.
“It’s difficult to say if this was my best but one of maybe the three best and most important goals in my life.”
This represents United’s last hope of a trophy. “The FA Cup is very important for every team,” Matic says. “The Premier League is most important in England, but the Cup is second.”
United finished sixth last season while claiming the Carabao Cup and Europa League. They are involved in a three-way tussle for second place, standing four points ahead of Liverpool and six better off than Spurs, with four matches remaining.
Matic believes that finishing as runners-up and FA Cup winners is not enough for United. “I’m sure it is not but to finish second in the league is not bad,” he says. “We always want more and try to be first.”
Drawing on the experience of being a double title-winner with Chelsea, Matic is adamant that United were not ready to be champions this season. The dismal 1-0 defeat against West Bromwich on Sunday handed Manchester City the crown and the Serb, asked whether he can see similarities between José Mourinho’s United and the manager’s victorious Chelsea of three years ago, says: “Not yet. We need to have more experience in different kinds of situations during the game.
“We drop many points when we shouldn’t, and not doing so comes with experience. For example, at Leicester in the last second [drawing 2-2], then we lost at Huddersfield [2-1].
“Against Chelsea, Man City, everything is possible. But in these [other] kind of games if you win almost every one you are champions.”
City are 13 points ahead and Matic is unsure whether they can be overhauled next year. “I hope so, we improve step by step,” the midfielder says. “When you win the league there is more pressure – everyone expects you to do the same but it is not easy to repeat. Opponents are more ready, they give everything, they want to beat the champions.
“I’ve been through it at Chelsea. It is hard but you need to be ready. We won in 2015 and 2017 with Chelsea and all the players knew that [the following season] everyone was going to give everything against them.”
The defeat by West Brom, the bottom club in the Premier League, was the latest illustration of how erratic United can be. This has caused a frustrated Mourinho to criticise his players throughout the campaign. Only Matic – and Romelu Lukaku – have been praised by the manager for being consistently brilliant.
“When I came here I wanted to show my qualities, I wanted to bring something and I am happy that the manager, my team-mates and the club are happy with my job. That is why I am here and will try to do the same for the rest of my time.”
Matic denies it has caused any dressing-room teasing. “No one has said anything. What I have to say is I am proud. We have a good relationship as a coach and a player but no more than that. José is always José.”
Matic’s move last summer caused puzzlement given how integral he was to Chelsea’s championship triumph and how it would strengthen United. Yet he clams up on this. “Many people ask me about that but I don’t want to say,” he says. “Only me, my family and agent know the truth.”
Whereas Matic has prospered under Mourinho, Paul Pogba has endured a difficult time, being dropped and substituted regularly in recent matches. As a midfield partnership their characters are yin and yang. Pogba’s penchant for social media, coloured hair and dancing goal celebrations has a diametric opposite in Matic’s uber-quiet off-field persona.
There is a dry sense of humour, though, as evidenced by his take when asked whether he might countenance blue or red hair. “No, I have kids – if I do that my son is going to do the same; I have to have serious hair like Gary Neville,” Matic says, before also brushing off adopting a dance routine when he scores. “No, I’m just simple.”
United lost 2-0 at Tottenham in January’s league fixture, a game when Mourinho removed Pogba on 63 minutes. Matic, though, offers no insight as to why. “I don’t remember the game,” he says. “I don’t know – we play many games.”
Clearer is the drive that allowed Matic’s rise from lowly beginnings 13 years ago to the brilliant career he now enjoys. “In Serbia I played in the third division [at Kolubara], which is like League One in England – probably worse. I earned £70 per month at 17-18,” he says and explains why he moved to Slovakia. “I had the opportunity to go there and I said: ‘Let’s try it.’
“There is an interesting story because an agent wanted to take me to a Serbian club and I was not happy to do so. He asked: ‘Where do you want to go then?’ I was sitting at a table with him, playing third division, and I told him: ‘I wanted to go to Manchester United.’ He was like: ‘What is he talking about?’ I was joking but it shows everything is possible.”
So what, then, of the semi-final against Spurs. “We need to see where we made mistakes [in the loss],” Matic says. “We need to approach the game in a different way for sure and this [previous] game helps.”