It felt right, didn’t it? The Stretford End “sucked the ball in,” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it after Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. The intensity with which José Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear. The rush of adrenaline as Anthony Martial equalised; the euphoria of that late Paul Pogba winner. Three points. Momentum firmly with the Reds.
José Mourinho has gained a reputation for alienating many in the game. The big personality, robust ego and single-minded drive to win is ill-suited to making friends. Yet, the Portuguese manager comes face-to-face this weekend with one of his few friends in the game, former assistant and Middlesbrough coach Aitor Karanka. It’ll be a meeting of minds as well as colleagues. Yet, with Manchester United desperate to add a fifth straight league win as momentum builds, there’ll be little time for friendship at Old Trafford on Saturday.
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.
At what point does, seemingly, appalling luck become par for the course? Since Manchester United last picked up maximum points in a Premier League game, a very familiar pattern has played out: dominant in possession, much of the play, very few chances taken. Three matches, three 1-1 draws. It has left the Reds 13 points off the Premier League leaders.
It’s official – Manchester United has made the leap from chronically depressing to mind-bogglingly frustrating. In what feels like a cruel joke, José Mourinho’s side is now, in many ways, the antithesis of Louis van Gaal’s uninspiring outfit, but for the rather large caveat of being unable to find the net. That will have to change with the Reds at Everton this weekend.
Four points – the difference between Manchester United’s elimination from this season’s Europa League and the humiliation of having to play in Europe’s second tier competition past the New Year. José Mourinho’s side could collect three of the four points required to qualify from Group A on Thursday night with Feyenoord visiting Old Trafford. The real question, of course, is whether any of the players are really up for it?
As far as international breaks go the series of games this week could not have been timed any worse for Manchester United. Fresh from victory against struggling Swansea City, the Reds desperately need a run of positive results to build momentum in a stop-start season. Instead, José Mourinho’s players return from activity on three continents ahead of a must-win fixture against one of the club’s oldest enemies.
No one said it would be easy. But no one said it’d be this hard. As José Mourinho’s side fumbled its way through another disappointing night in Europe, the few remaining onlookers who thought everything would be back to normal this time around suffered a rude awakening. There is, apparently, no quick fix to the problems facing Manchester United, the self-proclaimed “biggest club in the world.”