Strange game, football. Manchester United’s visit to White Hart Lane is always eagerly anticipated. Yet, with the home side coming off a chastening defeat to Manchester City last weekend, and United securing an unlikely 5-0 victory in the Champions League on Wednesday, there is a little added intrigue in the air ahead of Sunday’s clash.
There can be little doubt that Tottenham Hotspur boss Andre Villas-Boas is under increasing pressure having spent some £100 million on new players last summer. The north Londoners restored some pride in beating Tromso on Thursday, although Spurs’ 2-0 victory in Norway will do little to dampen the groundswell of criticism now surrounding Villas-Boas in his second season at White Hart Lane.
It is no time to look at history for home fans. Spurs haven’t beaten the Reds in north London for more than a decade, leaving home supporters to be forgiven for fearing the worst come Sunday lunchtime.
Meanwhile, United’s domestic form has been anything but consistent, on show once again in a dispiriting draw at Cardiff City last weekend. United’s midfield has rarely been more static and the frustrating inability to hold on to a lead the result of a total lack of defensive composure. On to Leverkusen on Wednesday and the vibrancy with which United attacked brought easily the finest performance of David Moyes’ Old Trafford reign.
Such is football. The beautiful game is always a strange bedfellow to a predictable narrative.
“We have to get a better level of consistency,” admitted the Scot, whose first 20 games have brought 12 victories, five draws and three defeats.
“I look around the Premier League and that’s been quite noticeable throughout really. Arsenal are the one side who have shown a real consistency as we’re about to go into December. They’re the one side who has shown that. We have dropped some points we shouldn’t have done and we have to try to eradicate that.
“There’s a bit of us still being a work in progress really, us trying to work together to get everything we want to be correct, and we’ve still got a bit to go on that. The best is to come and I still think we can continue to improve and progress.
“There have been moments that have shown we are beginning to come right back into form. Midweek certainly showed what we are capable of when we are playing well .”
Victory in Germany brought to 11 United’s unbeaten run, although a pattern of winning and then drawing has seemingly set in. It leaves Moyes with the manager’s dilemma: stick with the side that hammered Bayer, or rotate in the knowledge that Everton arrive at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Moyes will again be without midfielder Michael Carrick, although star striker Robin van Persie will return to the squad. The Dutchman has missed games with toe and groin problems in recent weeks, leaving Moyes to make a late call on whether van Persie starts against his old rivals.
Meanwhile, captain Nemanja Vidić is likely to feature after being given the all-clear to play again following concussion. Phil Jones is set to retain a role in midfield where Moyes has a choice to make between retaining the quartet that functioned so well in Germany or rotating to keep his troops fresh ahead of Wednesday’s match.
Ryan Giggs is likely to be involved two days after turning 40, although the Welshman may return to the bench with Marouanne Fellaini available in the centre of United’s midfield.
Yet, Moyes most pressing choice is whether to retain Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa as an attacking pair even if van Persie is fit to return. Should the Dutchman earn a recall Kagawa will drop back into a wide role once again – a frustrating move for the Japanese no doubt.
There is, after all, no chance the Scouser will drop out, despite playing in 17 of United’s fixtures this season. Indeed, Moyes seemingly has little predilection for resting the former Everton player just yet.
“There will be times when we do have to look after him. At the moment he doesn’t need it. But I will be looking for any signs of a dip,” said Moyes.
“He is a boy who continually gets better in the games he plays. I just want to make sure I keep him playing as well as he is doing. I look at a lot of other clubs and they have played their players continuously. It’s just at United here we’ve got a squad, we can rotate them, we have got other options.”
Whatever the selection there is little doubt that United must now find greater consistency. Arsenal’s victory over Cardiff on Saturday stretched the Gunners’ Premier League lead over the Reds to a full 10 points.
Still, with 25 games remaining in the campaign nothing is yet decided, although further points dropped on Sunday will undoubtedly increase the pressure on Moyes despite that fantastic European result.
“People always write Manchester United off. Remember last year people were saying the same then, but in the end we won the league,” said vice-captain Patrice Evra.
“Every game, every year is a challenge playing for Man United. We didn’t make the most of the Arsenal win and that was why we were so disappointed about the Cardiff draw.
“We have not lost for a long time and we want to keep winning and keep winning. If we had won at Cardiff it would have been a bit easier going to Tottenham, but now we cannot afford to lose at White Hart Lane. The draw against Southampton and Cardiff plus the defeat at home to West Brom – if we had won those matches we would be top of the league, and that is why we are so frustrated.”
Meanwhile, Villas-Boas will recall a host of regulars after making nine changes for the midweek Europa League victory. However, Christian Eriksen, Danny Rose and Harry Kane remain on the sidelines, while Emmanuel Adebayor faces a late fitness test.
Whatever the selection the Portuguese simply cannot afford another reverse, lest the former Porto and Chelsea coach should once again find himself without a Premier League employer.
“I am very happy for the players to have bounced back from the defeat against Man City,” the Spurs manager said. “The opponent we have on Sunday is the biggest that we can have, but to prepare for that game it was important to get back to winning ways.”
It is a run that should come to an end on Sunday, with United full of confidence on the journey south. Then again, stranger things do happen in football. Not least in the past week.
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United, Premier League, Old Trafford, 12pm, 30 November 2013
Spurs (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Kaboul, Dawson, Vertonghen; Paulinho, Dembélé; Townsend, Sigurdsson, Lamela; Soldado. Subs from: Friedel, Chiriches, Holtby, Lennon, Defoe, Adebayor
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Jones, Fellaini; Valencia, Kagawa, Januzaj; Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Rafael, Ferdinand, Anderson, Cleverley, Nani, Young, Giggs, Hernández, van Persie
Spurs 47 Draw 47 United 84
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: J Collin, P Bankes
Fourth Official: J Moss