Victory in the Premier League at last. Recent draws against Burnley, Stoke City, Arsenal, West Ham United and Everton had threatened to derail Manchester United’s domestic season, putting qualification for the Champions League at risk and ending all hope of a challenge for the title. Yet, Sunday’s narrow win over Tottenham Hotspur offers some light. Not only that United can salvage the campaign, but make up a six point gap to fourth-placed Manchester City. It is a scenario that will require the Reds to go on a lengthy winning run this winter.
Indeed, the Blues’ defeat to champions Leicester City at the weekend, together with Liverpool’s draw on Sunday, has made standings at the top of the Premier League just a little tighter. Had United lost to an in-form Spurs, then José Mourinho’s outfit would have been staring at another season outside the Champions League. That is a £50 million disaster. As it stands, Henryk Mkhitaryan’s superbly taken strike offers more than a little fresh hope.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]For the way we play, we don’t deserve to suffer, we don’t deserve to arrive in the last 30 minutes with our hearts in our hands. We have been playing so well but not getting results. We needed the result today. The performance was even better because we were playing against a very good team.[/blockquote]
Victory was certainly hard-earned against Mauricio Pochettino’s side, with United playing on the break as the visitors hogged possession. It proved an inspired tactic for a little over an hour; Spurs kept the ball,l but with little penetration and United played counter attacking football in the fashion many have come to recognise as classic Mourinho. Mkhitaryan on the right and Martial on the left enjoyed a fruitful afternoon, while the trio of Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and the peerless Ander Herrera proved once again to be United’s best midfield combination.
United’s goal demonstrated the folly of keeping Mkhitaryan out of the picture for so long this season, as did Armenian’s wonder-striker in Ukraine on Thursday. Herrera’s fine through ball released the Armenian to smash home his second goal for United in as many games. Some player, some contribution, a huge bonus for the Reds.
More than Mkhitaryan’s attacking contribution, victory came via the kind of backs-to-the-wall defensive performance in the last 20 minutes that United has lacked in recent games. No mistakes this time, even though Mourinho pulled the usual trick of substituting attacking players for more defensively minded options. It ruined United’s rhythm in what became a highly attritional encounter for much of the second period.
Yet, there was no surprise in the Portuguese coach’s upbeat mood in the aftermath. Mourinho once again claimed that ill luck has contributed to United slipping 13 points off the Premier League lead. There is only a half-truth in that, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring again and Mkhitaryan having added pace and zest in the attacking third there are some signs that United will up the chance conversion rate in the coming weeks. It is, after all, still needed. The Reds converted one in 15 on Sunday, and two in 19 on Thursday.
“For the way we play, we don’t deserve to suffer, we don’t deserve to arrive in the last 30 minutes with our hearts in our hands,” said Mourinho. “We deserved to be enjoying the match and we cannot enjoy the match when we are under pressure. We have been playing so well but not getting results. We needed the result today. I think the performance was even better than the others because we were playing against a very good team. A team that, for me, is the one that I prefer in the Premier League because of the way they play football. So even more credit to the players for that.”
For all the confidence Sunday’s victory brings it will count for little if Mourinho’s side takes a step backwards at Crystal Palace on Wednesday or West Bromwich Albion next weekend. Indeed, the December and January fixture list, which includes at least three domestic cups games, could make or break United’s campaign. Games at Palace and the Baggies are followed, in the Premier League, with home ties against Sunderland and Middlesboro during the Christmas period. Par for the course can only be four victories in succession.
In the New Year United faces cup matches with Hull City and Reading, where Mourinho will surely rest key players, before league games with West Ham, Liverpool, and Stoke. By the end of January, United could stretch for a points total of somewhere around 40, from 24 today. It would require a highly feasible five wins from seven. Mourinho is certainly looking forward, and he is a little less tetchy than in recent weeks.
“Now we are sixth in the table, our position didn’t change, but we reduced three points from Tottenham and from Manchester City,” added Mourinho. “So it was not a bad weekend for us, especially because our match at home was one of those when a draw would be something normal, according to the projection of both teams.”
Certainly, none of United’s upcoming opponents can claim better form than the Reds. Palace secured a hard-fought draw with Hull on Saturday, but the London club lies just three points off the drop zone, while supporters continue to question Alan Pardew’s future. The Baggies are enjoying a solid campaign, but have shipped enough goals at home to suggest United’s profligacy will benefit from some margin for error in the Midlands. Meanwhile, Sunderland and Boro both occupy the lower reaches of the Premier League table, as is to be expected. Not even David Moyes’ return to Old Trafford on Boxing should dampen the festive spirit.
The New Year offers some tougher challenges, although the Hammers’ form at the Olympic Stadium is near chaotic, much like the club’s supporters. Unrest in the stands has certainly not helped Slaven Bilic’s side focus at home, although in-fighting has mirrored some embarrassing West Ham performances on the pitch. Moreover, United’s recent demolition of the London side at Old Trafford points to victory in east London in the first fixture of 2017. All eyes will then fall on the 15 January game against Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp’s outfit enjoying a fruitful season in front of goal, only to be let down by familiar frailties at the back.
United must take advantage of a favourable fixtures list in the coming six weeks if Champions League football is to remain on the agenda for 2018. The sponsors demand it, Mourinho demands it, and United supporters expect even more that a challenge for the top four.
Victory over a fine Spurs team offers more than a little evidence that this team is finally on the up. The time to prove it is now.
Seven Critical League Fixtures
vs Crystal Palace, Selhurst Park, 14 December
Rant Prediction: Palace 0-2 United
vs West Bromwich Albion, Hawthorns, 17 December
Rant Prediction: West Brom 1-2 United
vs Sunderland, Old Trafford, 26 December
Rant Prediction: United 3-0 Sunderland
vs Middlesboro, Old Trafford, 31 December
Rant Prediction: United 2-1 Boro
vs West Ham, Olympic Stadium, 2 January
Rant Prediction: West Ham 1-2 United
vs Liverpool, Old Trafford, 15 January
Rant Prediction: United 1-1 Liverpool
vs Stoke City, Britannia Stadium, 21 January
Rant Prediction: Stoke 1-1 United