It is perhaps too early to tempt fate and claim that Manchester United has turned a significant corner, but Sunday’s ship-steadying victory over Tottenham Hotspur was certainly a step in the right direction. It was José Mourinho’s first league victory at Old Trafford since September, a statistic that could be considered a sacking offence in the knee-jerk world of modern football. Yet, as is so often the case, there has been much more to United’s season than the raw data. And the Reds could take another step forward at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
The recent series of frustrating home draws has diverted attention away from the fact that Mourinho is turning United into a markedly better side. Bad luck has undoubtedly contributed to what has been, at times, an inexplicable run of results, but it has also been evident that the team is not the finished article. Putting the ball in the net with regularity is an important facet of being a finished article, and the insistence of some that United’s inability to score more regularly was down to misfortune carried a hint of denial.
The Reds’ 1-0 victory over Spurs has gone some way to alleviating supporter’s anxiety though. United made the team’s dominance count, with the home side containing Mauricio Pochettino’s outfit for the most part. There was palpable tension in the closing stages as the Reds sunk deeper, perhaps unnerved by recent late mishaps. Yet, it was a crucial victory for Mourinho’s men in the context of what’s to come.
“December was the defining month of last year’s campaign, as United’s title credentials evaporated and Louis Van Gaal’s fate was effectively sealed. Mourinho simply cannot afford a similar disaster.”
December was the defining month of last year’s campaign, as United’s title credentials evaporated and Louis van Gaal’s fate was effectively sealed. Mourinho simply cannot afford a similar disaster. Results over the weekend have opened up a small window of opportunity for United to sneak back into top four contention over the gruelling Christmas fixture schedule, beginning with a trip south to face Crystal Palace.
The two sides have not met since Jesse Lingard’s volley secured a 12th FA Cup for United back in May, and Palace is a side against which the Reds have often fared well. In fact, the visitors have not lost to Palace since 2011, a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford in the League Cup, which was notable for a substitute appearance from Paul Pogba. In the league, Palace has not beaten United since 1991, on the day when Andrei Kanchelskis made his début. The Reds’ last trip to Selhurst Park in 2015 came amid a tortorous series of 0-0 draws that defined Van Gaal’s tenure.
Mourinho’s men are aiming to build on Sunday’s morale-boosting three points, preceding an eminently winnable run of games. The trip to Palace is followed by another away day at West Bromwich Albion, before United welcomes Middlesbrough and then David Moyes’ Sunderland to Old Trafford to finish 2016.
It now seems a lifetime ago, but it was once widely assumed – and feared – that United would move up a level at the turn of the year, and if Mourinho wants to rescue his side’s frustratingly stop-start domestic campaign, then now is very much the time to revive that old adage.
The London side has kept just a single clean sheet in the league so far this season, with a manic 5-4 defeat to Swansea City demonstrating the type of football the Londoners are playing. Alan Pardew has long been regarded as a manager best suited to bringing stability to a club, but is now under pressure following some worryingly poor form. The Eagles languish in 15th place, three points off the relegation places, and United will look to prey on a backline that is low on confidence.
Jason Puncheon, who scored Palace’s last two goals against United, is suspended and his absence offers Yohan Cabaye a way back into the team which drew 3-3 at Hull City on Saturday – a game in which two former Reds, Wilfried Zaha and Frazier Campbell, both found the net for Pardew’s side.
Zaha has impressed in recent weeks, and is perhaps on the way to showcasing his undoubted talent consistently, a failing which ultimately doomed his United career. The winger scored a fine solo effort against the Tigers, and Pardew was quick to lavish praise on the 24-year-old, claiming that not “many players in the league have Wilf’s ability.”
Zaha and compatriot Andros Townsend could prove to be the home side’s key men, as United come into the game with issues in both full-back positions.
United fans covered their eyes in horror as Henrikh Mkhitaryan was stretchered off at the tail-end of another man-of-the-match performance against Tottenham. Mourinho has confirmed that although the Armenian will miss out on tomorrow’s trip to Selhurst Park, his injury is not as bad as originally feared. Mkhitaryan, who has quickly endeared himself to the United support, was felled by a cynical challenge by Danny Rose, but should return in time to face Middlesbrough on Boxing Day.
Palace subs: Speroni, Flamini, Campbell, Lee Chung-yong, Fryers, Phillips
United subs: Romero, Young, Bailly, Schweinsteiger, Fellaini, Rooney, Rashford
Elsewhere, another of United’s stand-out performers will be absent from Wednesday’s fixture, as the reborn Antonio Valencia serves a one-match ban. His suspension means that Matteo Darmian may switch to right back, pitting him against an in-form Zaha. The Italian defender endured a torrid second half at the hands of Spurs’ Moussa Sissoko, and was roundly criticised on social media for his performance.
Mourinho faces a dilemma of a different kind at centre-back, with Eric Bailly fit and looking for a first league start since picking up a knee ligament injury against Chelsea in October. The Ivorian defender is United’s most effective option at the heart of defence, but the manager’s praise of unlikely duo Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo suggests he is not ready to sacrifice the pairing at Bailly’s expense.
“They’re playing well, they’re playing more than ever and better than ever, and now we have a third central defender to rotate.” Mourinho said.
“We gave a rest to Jones in Ukraine and now he played against Tottenham free of injury or tiredness; we now have a third central defender in Bailly. Until the end of the year, hopefully we can manage with those three in the two positions.”
In attack, Mkhitaryan’s injury opens a gap in United’s increasingly cohesive front three, and Juan Mata will be unlucky if he is not recalled in the Armenian’s absence. Mata had been United’s most in-form attacker before Mkhitaryan’s, and Wednesday offers the Spaniard an fresh opportunity to excel.
Elsewhere, Anthony Martial failed to impress against Tottenham, in a display littered with heavy touches, as well as an earful from Mourinho over his defensive workrate. The Frenchman has not travelled with the United squad to London, creating another opening in wide areas.
Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford provide options for the vacant left-wing berth, but Rashford in particular has struggled when posted wide this season; and a string of ineffective performances seem to have dented the striker’s confidence. With a hectic schedule on the horizon, it is unlikely Zlatan Ibrahimovic will feature in every game, meaning Rashford may be handed an opportunity to stake a claim at nine sooner rather than later. The veteran Swede is likely to retain his place this week as United search for vital points on the road.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: S Long, A Holmes
Fourth official: S Attwell
Crystal Palace 1-3 United