As far as club fixtures go there are only a handful in world football that lie firmly in the ‘unmissable’ category. El Clasico certainly, which resembles a soap opera given the drama of the players involved. The Auld Firm produces pure hatred between the two Glasgow sides, as does the Derby Della Capitale between Roma and Lazio. The Manchester derby is fast becoming the Hollywood blockbuster fixture of which Sky Sports and Twitter’s football hipsters dream. Yet, Liverpool against Manchester United has something just a little different.
The headlines, save for Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, have been about Manchester United and England captain Wayne Rooney for a week or more. It probably couldn’t be any other way. Yet, lost amid José Mourinho’s decision to ditch a player who once enjoyed the “special privileges” at Old Trafford, has been United’s return to form, of sorts. Three defeats in succession derailed what early season momentum Mourinho’s side had built up. Victories over Leicester City and Zorya Luhansk in the past week have restored a more natural order to proceedings. Both without Rooney.
Could it be the day that José Mourinho finally makes the big selection decision on everybody’s mind? The one involving captain Wayne Rooney and the bench. After all, Rooney’s performances this season, for the last three, have suggested a once great player on the wane. That burst of speed, surety of touch, and goalscoring prowess: all gone. His value to the team: vastly diminished.
What a difference a week makes. The impressive summer and good start to the season brought an inevitable return to Manchester United’s old hubris. Supporters got carried away with their new found confidence. How José Mourinho’s team has brought fans back down to Earth.
What a difference a summer makes. Two games into José Mourinho’s tenure as Manchester United manager and the narrative surrounding England’s most successful club has significantly changed. Victories over Leicester City and Bournemouth, allied to the new manager and fresh faces in the dressing room, have brought confidence coursing back. The sentiment on the terraces has done a 180 – far from the despondency of the last few years, fans now believe that United is not only back, but bound for success. Friday night under Old Trafford’s lights is just one more step towards the inevitable.
If any set of fixtures describes the farce at Manchester United over the last three years then the Reds’ games against Bournemouth last season could sum it up. United arrived on the South Coast last December needing three points to top the Premier League. Instead, Louis van Gaal’s side was undone by a series of comical errors, resulting in a 2-1 defeat and with it slipped down to fifth place. United never recovered. New manager José Mourinho cannot contemplate a repeat as the Reds visit Bournemouth of the opening day of the new campaign.
In years gone by the build up to the FA Cup final would centre on the teams involved. The occasion and the prize on offer mean far more than the future of any manager. But, then, this hasn’t been any old season. Manchester United heads into the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace looking for the club’s first piece of major silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Three long years. While reaching the cup final is to be celebrated, there will be relief painted across United supporters’ faces come full-time on Saturday. The curtain will surely come down on Louis van Gaal’s era at Old Trafford.
In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
It couldn’t happen, could it? Since Manchester United’s dismal December the foremost assumption has been that the Reds’ fate lies outside the top four, and with it a second year in three away from the Champions League. Yet, with just three Premier League games remaining, Louis van Gaal’s side is hot on the coat-tails of Manchester City, with an FA Cup final to come. Salvation for Van Gaal, perhaps, and possible redemption for a group of players that has largely underwhelmed.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.