It is a strange period for Manchester United. Three disappointing results in succession against Stoke City, Fulham and then Arsenal were followed by the sojourn to Dubai for warm weather training – and no little activity with local sponsors. Whether the break drives better results in the coming weeks will be the only relevant proof of United’s strategy. Yet, victory for United over Crystal Palace in south London this weekend is anything but guaranteed, with Tony Pulis’ side experiencing an impressive revival in recent weeks.
Whatever the impression gained after United’s antics in Dubai this week, David Moyes desperately needs victory to stabilise a ship that has been badly listing in recent months. Now 11 points adrift of Liverpool in the Premier League, United will almost certainly miss out on the Champions League next season. Whether the Reds qualify for Europe at all is in the balance, with Moyes’ side required to finish between fifth and seventh depending on who wins domestic cup competitions.
Still, Moyes believes United returned from the Middle East with renewed spirit in the camp and is ready for matches first against Palace at Selhurst Park and then Olympiakos in Athens over the next 72 hours. It is a hugely decisive period in United’s campaign.
“It was great that we had some time together with the players – the first time I’ve really had the chance to have a few days with them,” said Moyes.
“We trained and had some relaxation time as well, so it was good. You hope you get some benefit from it. We’d have rather been in the FA Cup, let me tell you that more than anything, but we weren’t, so the next thing we had to do is get them ready for the 12 remaining games.”
Moyes has bemoaned United’s luck this season, while frequently apportioning blame for poor results on referees. The Scot seemingly suggested that the FA had achieved what it “wanted” with United slipping down the league table this season. There is little room for further excuse with a fresh, largely injury free squad entering the season’s denouement.
Indeed, Moyes will take a strong squad to London, including striker Wayne Rooney who this week signed a five and half year contract worth £85 million not including bonuses. It is reward for a stronger campaign over the past eight months than in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season as United manager. Quite whether the 28-year-old Scouser has done enough to earn more than £300,000 per week is a moot question.
“I remember when he came to see me I said to him: ‘If you ask me what’s missing – I think you’ve gone a bit soft’,” said Moyes on Friday.
“I thought he hadn’t been the hard-working, aggressive player he was. But now in games people are saying: ‘Look at the effort he’s putting in.’ It’s his work-rate, not just for himself but for the team. He’s become an all-round team player who is also a technically gifted footballer.
“The most important thing for Wayne was to show everyone what he really was and I think deep down he knows he didn’t play as well as he could have done at times. I needed to try to get him back to that level. His training was first-class, he came back in great shape, you could really see the hunger back in his eyes again.”
Moyes welcomes back Belgian midfielder Marouanne Fellaini, who has missed much of the season with wrist and groin injuries. The former Everton player could start in south London with Moyes set to rotate his players ahead of two key games in the coming days. Moyes could also start Adnan Januzaj for the first time since early January, but Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Nani remain on the sidelines with injury.
Meanwhile, Pulis can take pride from Palace’s renaissance since the 58-year-old Englishman took over at Selhurst Park in late November. The Londoners’ seven victories under Pulis have taken a side seemingly destined for relegation to 15th place – two points above the drop zone.
Palace’s sole injury concern is Jerome Thomas, who has a back problem, although striker Glenn Murray is not thought ready to start after recovering from a long-term knee problem.
Often the subject of media scruitinity of his teams’ tactics, Pulis offered words of support for fellow manager Moyes this week. The minority of United supporters expressing frustration with Moyes’ performance results this season has seemingly grown by the week.
“David’s had a tough start at Manchester United,” said Pulis, who left Stoke City last summer.
“They’ve got some outstanding players and I’ve watched the last three games on tapes that they’ve played, and the last three games they could have won the games comfortably.
“Unfortunately with Dave they haven’t had the breaks, so they’ve not been able to pick up momentum. In time David will turn it to how he wants it. You’ve got to give him time. You’ve got to give him the opportunity to do it, just like they gave Sir Alex, when Sir Alex first came into the job. They gave him the opportunity to turn the club round.
“It’s a proper football club, and the people behind the scenes will give David that time irrespective I think of what the press and the media will say. He couldn’t be at a better club with better people because they were in this position before.”
It is an argument with which few United supporters will agree. With the club on its knees and close to financial ruin, Ferguson built an empire from which he and the ruling Glazer family have hugely profited.
Moyes, by contrast, has not only seen more than 21 per cent erased from United’s stock price since joining the club in the summer, but led the team to 10 defeats in all competitions. Another on Saturday can only intensify the pressure on the Scot.
A little less than 19 years since Eric Cantona launched a flying attack on a Palace fan, it is a measure of United’s fall from grace that few supporters can confidently predict a positive result in south London this time around.
Crystal Palace v Manchester United, Premier League, Selhurst Park, 5.30pm, 22 February 2014
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
Palace (4-2-3-1): Speroni; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Ledly; Jedinak, Dikgacoi; Puncheon, Ince, Bolasie; Chamakh
Palace: Hennessey, Gabbidon, Moxey, Mariappa, McCarthy, Parr, Murray, Thomas, O’Keefe, Bannan, Williams, Gayle, Jerome, Wilbraham
United: Lindegaard, Giggs, Hernández, Büttner, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Valencia, Kagawa, Cleverley, Welbeck
Palace 7 Draw 9 United 27
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Burt, A Garratt
Fourth Official: K Friend