In the week Premier League chairman voted through proposals to curb excessive spending, there is some prescience in Manchester United’s trip to face Swansea City this week. The Welsh club is, after all, a model in sustainable and organic growth. No little surprise that Manchester City was one of only two clubs to vote against the proposals – Mohammed Al Fayed’s Fulham being the other. But also much to laud in Swansea’s model – part-owned by the fans and largely debt-free.
Yet, at the beginning of another busy Christmas programme there will be little charity from United on Sunday, with the opportunity to create a decisive advantage in the Premier League over the next four matches. United faces the Swans, followed by fixtures against Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic. A quartet of tough fixtures, for sure, but each that Sir Alex Ferguson believes winnable all the same.
Still, with Swansea better off in points terms than at the same stage last season, Michael Laudrup’s outfit has consolidated superbly in the top division. Indeed, while the side’s tiki-taka sensibility has become a modicum more pragmatic, Laudrup’s outfit still plays some of the best football in England’s top division.
Little wonder Sir Alex Ferguson holds much admiration for the 100-year-old club, although the septuagenarian may bristle at talk of fan ownership and financial stability.
“You’ve seen the results they have had and the progress they have made as a football club over the last years,” said the United manager, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve. “The important thing for me is they try to play and have the courage to play their football, which is good.”
United begin the Christmas period in fine health, with only Brazilian Rafael da Silva, Nani and Shinji Kagawa likely to miss Sunday’s fixture. However, captain Nemanja Vidić is fit enough to make the bench after suffering no adverse reaction to a substitute appearance last weekend. Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand will again pair up in central defence, and Phil Jones will continue at right-back.
Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to rotate his squad through four fixtures in nine days. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley will all feature in midfield over the next week, with similar rotation likely in forward positions too.
“At this time of year, all the games are challenges and they come thick and fast now,” adds Ferguson.
“Utilising the squad is important, as is picking the right team, but hopefully we can get through it and be in the same position as we are now.”
“Jonny has had one or two injuries but hopefully they’re behind him now. He’s fit for Sunday. Vida is doing great in training, it’s just a matter of picking the time to bring him back. It gives me options with Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand, Evans. Rafa won’t make Sunday’s game as he’s still out with a hamstring. Nani is still injured. Apart from those players, we’re all right.”
Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back goalkeeper Michel Vorm, who returns after a two-month layoff with a groin injury. Pablo Hernandez is available, but right-back Angel Rangel is again missing.
Whatever the result on Sunday, Swansea’s campaign has suffered nothing for a change of manager last summer. After all, Laudrup is now an experienced campaigner across three countries, although one that rarely seems to stay at an employer for any length of time.
Still, Laudrup can be proud both of the campaign and Swansea’s ability to buck any potential ‘second season syndrome’.
“We are coming up to the halfway point of the season and whatever happens between now and then, we will have 23 points on the board,” said the former Denmark international.
“That is three more than at the same stage last season, and we can then look back at what we have achieved and see what targets we can set for the remainder of the season. But the next six or seven weeks are crucial for us.“Of course we would like to win on Sunday, but if we do then there will be a lot of focus on the club again.
Meanwhile, title rivals City play matches against Sunderland, Norwich City and Stoke City in the same period, after fortunately beating Reading 1-0 on Saturday. In common with Ferguson’s outfit, City will be seeking maximum points from middle-ranked opposition, although games on the road in Norfolk and the north east will test Roberto Mancini’s men.
No team has managed to win all it’s matches in December since Chelsea in 2004/5. Should Ferguson’s team achieve it the Premier League title will be one step closer. Yet, few in the Scot’s camp will doubt that United faces the sternest of tests away at Swansea on Sunday.
Swansea City v Manchester United – Premier League, Liberty Stadium – Sunday 23 December 2012, 1.30pm
Swansea (4-3-3): Vorm; Chico, Williams, Tiendalli, Davies; Dyer, Britton, Ki Sung-Yeung; Routledge, Michu, De Guzman; Subs from: Tremmel, Cornell, Monk, Agustien, Richards, Graham, Shechter, Moore
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Young; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Vidić, Smalling, Buttner, Fletcher, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs, Hernandez, Welbeck
Referee: M Oliver
Assistants: S Ledger; S Bennett
Fourth official: L Probert
Head to Head
Last 10: Swansea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Swansea 6, United 8, Draw 4
- Michu remains joint top scorer in the league this season despite not finding the net against Tottenham last weekend – the Spaniard has garnered a goal once every 129 minutes or once every 4 shots;
- Teenager defender Ben Davies has quietly emerged as a dominant force in the Swansea defence this season, achieving an 80 per cent tackle success rate from 35 challenges, conceding only 7 fouls;
- Wayne Routledge is the second highest ranked English midfielder in the league for combined goals and assists with eight according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Jonathan de Guzman has contributed the highest total completed passes in the Swansea squad with 366, also providing 24 crosses and four assists;
- Ashley Williams has intercepted the ball 102 times this season, as well as providing 22 blocks;
- Meanwhile for United Robin van Persie continues to settle into the side, registering six assists this season and a goal every 123 minutes this season;
- No striker in the Premier League has completed more passes in the opponent’s half than Wayne Rooney this season, who has recorded 371;
- Tom Cleverley has emerged as a midfielder of real quality this season, with the youngster succeeding in 68 per cent of his 22 challenges, as well as completing 240 passes in the opponent’s half;
- Javier Hernández boasts an excellent shots to goal ratio of three to one despite few chances in the first team this season;
- Few wingers deliver as consistently as Antonio Valencia, despite some shaky performances recently – the Ecuadorian has made more crosses, with 37, than anybody else in the United side.