Manchester United’s 10 days of tribulations is now underway, opening with a trickier-than-it-looked victory over AS Saint-Etienne in the Europa League. The Reds take a 3-0 lead into the second leg in France, which should provide ample cushion to rest some key names as the fixtures continue to pile up. José Mourinho was not altogether satisfied with United’s display against les Verts, but two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing stages – adding to his bizarre opener – means that the manager can look to Sunday’s FA Cup trip to Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers in isolation.
It’s the beginning of yet another pivotal period at Manchester United. As the club continues to compete on all fronts, it was inevitable that the tests would increase for José Mourinho and his players. Four games across three competitions, including a cup final, all crammed into an intimidating 10 day package will certainly do that. Mourinho has challenged players to prove they are good enough to be at the club, and he will likely have drawn conclusions on who fits that criteria when the final whistle blows at Wembley in just over a week. First, however, the Europa League returns with the visit of French side Saint-Etienne.
It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year, compared to a run of five consecutive victories to end 2016. United’s winning run was always going to end, but it is the performance dip and inability to capitalise on opponents dropping points that is causing most concern. Mourinho’s men are under intense pressure to buck this trend on Sunday at Leicester City.
It’s another week, another game against Hull City. Three meetings in 23 days with Marco Silva’s side generates a Groundhog Day feeling, but despite the repetition this fixture is no less important for José Mourinho and his men. United’s momentum was significantly slowed by disappointing draws against Liverpool and Stoke City in the team’s last two league outings, but the arrival of Hull represents the ideal opportunity to refocus.
Manchester United’s run of nine straight victories came to a somewhat unsatisfying end last week, as Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point. The Reds’ unbeaten record was rescued only by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header, as José Mourinho was left to reflect on points dropped. The joy sparked by the Swede’s improvisational finish quickly dissipated after the final whistle in the knowledge that Jurgen Klopp’s side would head back down the M62 harbouring considerable satisfaction. This week, United travels to Stoke, looking to recover from last week’s derby disappointment.
It’s nine victories in a row for Manchester United, the longest winning run since the 2008/09 title-winning campaign. Six of those wins have come in the league, yet the Reds remain stuck in sixth place – Mourinho’s men are running to stand still. It is a frustrating anomaly, but there is much more to the team’s turnaround than league standing. After what seems like an eternity, it feels like watching United again. What more could be asked heading into Liverpool’s visit on Sunday?
Rewind to January 2016 and the mood at Manchester United could hardly be more different. Although Louis Van Gaal did not depart until the end of the season, it was in the disastrous conclusion to 2015 that his fate was effectively sealed. The Reds did not win a game in December during a dismal run that included three straight defeats. Title ambitions were shattered and at one stage it appeared as though Van Gaal would not make it to the New Year.
It’s the season of goodwill, but there may be little of it at Old Trafford for former Manchester United boss David Moyes when his Sunderland team arrives on Boxing Day. There has been a feeling of indifference towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s hapless successor in the period since he was sacked in 2014. Moyes was hopelessly out of his depth at United, and although his dismissal was handled poorly, it was absolutely the right thing to do. The Scot contributed heavily to the club’s post-Fergie malaise, and should never have been given the job in the first place. Much of the blame has been levelled at the powers who appointed him. As such, there wasn’t a substantial amount of disdain towards the Scot. Until now.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last gasp winner at Crystal Palace was that it almost had that old air of inevitability about it. There was no cast-iron guarantee that the Reds would find a way past Palace’s enforced rear-guard, but it felt much more likely than the days of watching Louis Van Gaal’s United pacing around outside the door without so much as knocking it. Now, a tough test at West Bromwich Albion is the perfect opportunity to take another step in the right direction.
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.