Welcome to England. Manchester United’s second game inside 48 hours is a phenomenon only of the game’s birthplace; unquestionably a novelty for United manager Louis van Gaal. Still, the Reds travel south for Sunday’s fixture against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in good spirits, having notched up a seventh win in eight fixtures in dispatching Newcastle United on Friday. Not that everybody was pleased. Van Gaal, in keeping with his growing reputation on these shores, remains far from happy with England’s festive football programme.
United’s easy victory over Newcastle at Old Trafford took the Reds’ points tally to 22 from the past 24 – and a position comfortably inside the Champions League qualification positions, although some 10 points shy of Chelsea at the head of the Premier League. It should make for renewed confidence in Van Gaal’s camp, with half of the league season now completed and momentum squarely with the Reds.
Yet, victory over Newcastle also served to underline United’s inconsistency – great at home, far less so away from the safety of Old Trafford. White Hart Lane will, thus, pose a real test, both of United’s title ambitions, if any remain, as well as Van Gaal’s call for greater consistency. After all, while Mauricio Pochettino’s side has lost a quartet of home Premier League games this season, the Lilywhites have also secured victory in the past four matches.
“I am hoping that we come out of this busy festive period with some consistency which will carry us into the second half of the season,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “It is team spirit that I am looking for. It’s not about one or two players doing very well in a match, it’s about the whole team performing.
“There have been one or two blips along the way, but gradually we are getting better all the time, which is pleasing. Since I started managing in the Premier League I have come to learn that there are no easy sides to play in the league.”
Van Gaal’s preparation is aided neither by the short turnaround between fixtures or continued injury problems. Marouanne Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Marcos Rojo and Angel di Maria all miss Sunday lunchtime fixture, although Chris Smalling could start.
In defence the Dutchman is likely to persist with a back three until Rafael da Silva and Like Shaw are ready for first team action. The Brazilian made his long-awaited comeback as a second-half substitute against Newcastle on Friday, while Shaw could make the bench at White Hart Lane.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney will be retained in the midfield role from where the Scouser scored twice on Friday. Rooney may be finding his feet in the position – given the coaching required by Van Gaal between recent fixtures – but he was far more effective against Newcastle than in United’s draw with Aston Villa. Rooney’s ability to burst forward, rather than seek and retain possession, was the key to the Scouser’s effectiveness against the Geordies.
In attack Radamel Falcao could drop to the bench if the Colombian is yet to fully recover from Friday’s match, with James Wilson ready to come into the side. Indeed, the United manager again bemoaned festive fixture congestion, with his side unable to complete a full training session before Sunday’s game.
“I cannot prepare my team like I have to prepare,” he said. “We have team meetings, we have a training session always 11 against 11, simulating the opponent, we cannot do that now. We have to play within 48 hours. Uefa and Fifa say it’s forbidden to play within 48 hours, but, OK, it’s England.
“Players need 48 hours’ recovery time for a number of reasons. The physicality of a competitive match puts great strain on a player’s body so they need to fill up their energy stores due to the fatigue on their muscles and this can only be done by resting. On top of that we also need to prepare the players mentally and tactically. That is not an easy task.”
Meanwhile, Pochettino’s side is on a high after winning four matches in succession, including three in the Premier League. The north London side has now taken 30 points this season to match rivals Arsenal, with each seeking Champions League qualification next season, but neither guaranteed a place.
The Argentinian’s side secured another, if fortunate, victory on Friday at Leicester City, although it almost came at the expense of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris’ fitness. The French international suffering a cut to his mouth in the win, but should be fit to face United. Ryan Mason is also in the frame to play after featuring as a substitute on Boxing Day.
Still, history hardly favours the home side, even if the Londoners have beaten United twice in the past four fixtures between two of England’s great clubs. United hasn’t lost at White Hart Lane in 13 Premier League meetings since May 2001.
Not that Van Gaal cares much for history or, it seems, the English tradition of piling fixtures up at this time of year. It may take yet another win for the gruff Dutchman to warm to the idea of playing matches less than 48-hours apart, even if his players remain on a high.
“The signs have been good in recent weeks,” midfielder Michael Carrick told ManUtd.com. “We beat Newcastle and now have two big away games. They will be a good test for us to see where we are at. We’re continuing to look up. We’re not satisfied with third.
“Going to Tottenham is always a tough game and to go there two days after the Newcastle match at 12 noon makes it very tough, but we go there confident.”
Spurs (4-5-1): Lloris; Walker, Fazio, Vertonghen, Rose; Lamela, Mason, Bentaleb, Chadli, Eriksen; Kane
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, Smalling, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Rooney, Young; Mata; Van Persie, Wilson
Spurs: Vorm, Stambouli, Chiriches, Paulinho, Soldado, Townsend, Davies
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Shaw, McNair, Rafael, Anderson, Pereira, Falcao
Tottenham 48 – Draw 48 – United 84
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: S Bennett, S Long
Fourth Official: L Mason
Spurs 0-1 United
£1 bet club
Rooney to score in 0-1 win @ 35/1
Running total: £(-)7