The last time Norwich City came to Old Trafford it was very different time at Manchester United. David Moyes had been sacked after defeat to Everton four days earlier, leaving Ryan Giggs to oversee United’s 4-0 victory over the Canaries in his first game as caretaker-manager. Fast forward 19 months and few supporters in the Premier League could have forecast the season’s events to date. Just under half way through the campaign, Leicester City sits top of the table, two points clear of Arsenal and three of Manchester City. Champions Chelsea, in stark contrast, lie 16th having sacked Jose Mourinho’s this week.
United’s fourth place, six points off the leaders, looks reasonable on paper at least. Leicester will surely drop off in the months to come and Chelsea’s chance of qualifying for Europe, let alone the Champions League, remains slim. It leaves, in theory, a three-horse race for the title between the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal.
Football isn’t that simple, of course. In recent weeks the atmosphere at Old Trafford has approached anarchy, with jeers repeatedly directed at Louis van Gaal and his team. Despite United’s league position, the outlook doesn’t look promising for the Reds. Van Gaal’s team has secured just three wins in the last 12 games and the team is now on a run of five matches in succession without a victory, out of the Champions League at the group stages, and lost to Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup. With the busy Christmas period approaching United supporters’ confidence of challenging for the title is running thin.
Similarly, Alex Neil’s Norwich side is struggling. The Canaries are in the bottom three, with just 14 points secured this season. Victory at Old Trafford could take Neil’s side as high as 14th, but in truth the table does not make good reading for Norwich fans.
In common with many promoted clubs, Neil’s side has been praised for the way they its plays, deploying quick, direct players such as Nathan Redmond and former red Robbie Brady. However, the club is without a win since the start of November – a 1-0 victory over Swansea City. Despite creditable draws against Arsenal and Everton, it is hard to look past the East Anglia side as prime relegation candidates.
“Norwich have had some good results against top teams,” said Van Gaal. “They played out a draw against Arsenal for example. What I always say, and that’s not any excuse, is that winning in the Premier League is not so easy. The only answer is to win this game; we want that with all the fans, with all the players and with all the staff members. It’s still difficult because we are playing in the Premier League, but at home you have to win, that’s for sure.”
No stronger incentive for both sides to take all three points on Saturday, although the odds of it raining goals at Old Trafford appear narrow. Van Gaal’s team has averaged just 1.31 goals-per-game this season; Norwich a little better at 1.75. Cries of “attack, attack, attack” are more than a little likely from the Stretford End.
Both sides do have a point to prove though. United’s desperate need is to win back the fans’ favour – and with a potential ‘no fear’ attacking front four looking likely to start, home supporters could yet be surprised with a gift of goals going into the festive period.
One man hoping to play a key role in the coming weeks is Juan Mata. The Spain international started the season in fantastic form, contributing to almost 50 per cent of all United’s goals scored at one point. In the intervening months Mata’s form has fluctuated – he excelled during United’s defeat at Wolfsburg before being inexplicably withdrawn for Nick Powell. Little wonder fans were angry with Van Gaal’s substitution of the Spaniard when he appeared to be the most likely to create a chance for United on the night.
Yet, in defeat at Bournemouth last weekend Mata was anonymous, leaving some fans baffled at the manager’s decision to leave the Spaniard on the field for the full 90, while replacing the effective Marouane Fellaini for Powell.
Still, Mata insists that United will recover from the poor run of form. Arguing in his weekly blog that “everything passes and this bad streak will pass”. United’s ‘false nine’ says that the players “are aware we have to get better and with the right attitude and each of us giving the maximum we will get out of this situation.”
Van Gaal concurs with the importance of bouncing back after defeat to Bournemouth. “The silence in the dressing room is big,” the Dutchman said in his post-match press conference. “We have to train, we have to prepare for Norwich City and we have to beat them”.
It’s a little more assuring than the ‘Moyes-esque’ negativity last week, although if United fails to win on Saturday it surely won’t be long before Van Gaal’s players turn and the manager is left booking a flight to his ‘Portuguese paradise’ and the joys of retirement.
“I have the full confidence of my board and my players, that is what I feel,” said Van Gaal. “But we have to get results, we have to win. We know that, the players know that, I know that and the members of staff know that. There is no doubt that we have to win because when you lose too much then even for me it is the end of the world.”
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, Tuanzebe, McNair, Powell, Pereira, Fellaini, Goss
Norwich subs from: Ruddy, Mulumbu, Bennett, Howson, Mbokani, Dorrans, Grabban
Can United can bounce back on Saturday? Further injuries were suffered to Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair at Bournemouth, while Bastian Schweinsteiger is suspended for Norwich’s visit. One positive from the south coast defeat was the return to the match-day squad of Phil Jones and Morgan Schneiderlin. Van Gaal expects Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian and Ander Herrera, who has been severely missed in United’s midfield, to return before Christmas. Saturday may come too soon for all three.
Despite David De Gea’s unusual mistake last Saturday he will retain his place in goal, with youngsters Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson likely to continue ahead of the Spaniard in United’s back four. Phil Jones may start, partnering Daley Blind in defence after McNair suffered severe cramp last weekend.
In midfield, Michael Carrick will continue to stand in as skipper and should be partnered by the returning Schneiderlin. Mata could get the chance to continue in his favoured role at number 10 role due to Wayne Rooney’s ongoing injury and fitness issues. The Spaniard will be be flanked by Memphis Depay, who fluttered in and out of the Bournemouth game, and Ashley Young. Anthony Martial rediscovered his goal scoring touch against Wolfsburg and will continue up front, looking to exploit the relatively slow Norwich centre backs.
“Goals are the most important thing, we always have to look for solutions to make goals. We are doing that, but we have to look for the solutions in our selection, that’s important,” concluded Van Gaal. He’s not wrong.
Assistants: G Beswick, R West
Fourth Official: G Scott.
United 2-0 Norwich City