It is just a month since United last faced Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, but the contrast in fortunes could hardly be more stark. Following a 2-2 draw between the sides at White Hart Lane, David Moyes’ Reds lost successive matches against Everton and Newcastle United, prompting an over-zealous charge of crisis at Old Trafford. The crisis, if there ever was one, quickly dissipated as United won six matches on the spin in all competitions.
Meanwhile, the north London club sacked manager Andres Villas-Boas following a 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. Spurs had won the three preceding games, to leave an open question of perspective, with the sides locked on 34 Premier League points a month hence.
New Spurs manager Tim Sherwood has since led the Londoners to league victories over Stoke City and Southampton as the competition for Champions League places intensifies. In a more open season than many anticipated neither United nor Spurs are guaranteed a place in Europe next season.
Tottenham remain inconsistent under Sherwood, where league victories have been permeated with defeat at West Ham United in the Capital One Cup, and a disappointing home draw with West Bromwich Albion. Yet, the new man has sought to stamp his authority on the team since signing an 18 month contract at White Hart Lane, taking the oft-repeated criticism faced by Villas-Boas – of tactical over-complexity – and introducing a simplified approach in a familiar 4-4-2 formation.
Indeed, Spurs represent United’s toughest opponent of the festive period, with Sherwood likely to deploy two forwards at Old Trafford. The former England midfielder is keen to take the game to the hosts despite preaching a measure of caution in recent days.
Still, it is United that remains the form side coming into the New Year’s Day clash at Old Trafford, with Moyes’ outfit having secured victories over Aston Villa, West Ham United, Hull City and Norwich City over the festive period. Victories that have taken a vulnerable side from mid-table to contenders for European qualification, if not quite favourites to retain the Premier League.
“I like to play with risk,” said Sherwood after Spurs’ 3-0 victory over Stoke City on Saturday.
“There is going to be tougher tests ahead and we know that. We have to try to find the right formula to perform against some of the bigger teams. We have to assess what Man United are coming with. We know they’re going to be very, very good.
“They always are and have been ever since I was in football. We know we have to give them respect but we can’t be lambs to the slaughter. We need to make sure we go out there and impose ourselves on them as much as we can.”
Spurs will do so without key midfielder Paulinho, who will miss the next month with an ankle injury sustained against Stoke, while Jermain Defoe is out with a hamstring problem. Kyle Walker returns following suspension, but Younes Kaboul, Sandro, Andros Townsend and Jan Vertonghen remain sidelined.
Moyes has injury problems of his own to overcome, with strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie likely to miss the clash, although Antonio Valencia returns from a one game suspension. Rooney has a groin problem, while the Dutchman is not likely to return until United’s Premier League clash with Swansea City in January.
Yet, in the absence of senior pros it is perhaps Danny Welbeck that has shone brightest over the past month. The Longsight-born forward has scored four goals in the past five matches, including United’s winner at Norwich. However, Welbeck hit the net just once between September and mid-December highlighting both the 23-year-old’s inconsistency in front of goal and the limited number of chances proffered in the player’s favoured central striking role.
“I think he’s stepped up again and has a big season ahead,” said United manager Moyes on Monday.
“Danny’s an important player and one of the boys to come through the Academy system. He’s a versatile player as well as a very good player. We can use Danny in several positions. He can play in the middle or on the left.
“With the second half of the season to go he should certainly be looking to score 20 goals – and we need him to do that. When you don’t have Wayne and you don’t have Robin you need people to step up to the mark and in quite a few games recently he’s done that for us.
“Danny’s hoping to go to the World Cup with England and play a part and I think Roy Hodgson sees him as an important part of his team. We see him as an important part here too and if he keeps producing goals it will be great.”
Elsewhere, Moyes must assess the fitness of a squad facing its third match in six days. Michael Carrick will start in central midfield having completed the match against Norwich, while Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher all remain in contention. In Rooney’s absence Shinji Kagawa could start, in what has been a largely frustrating season for the Japanese playmaker.
Victory could take United into the top four for the first time this season – reward for a fine set of recent results. In fact, six wins on the bounce represents United’s best winning streak since a period in August and September 2012 that ended with a 3-2 loss at home to Tottenham.
Should the pattern be repeated and Spurs win at Old Trafford the old charge of ‘crisis’ is unlikely to be heard, but the risk to United’s ambitions this season will certainly be felt.
Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur, Premier League, Old Trafford, 5.30pm, 1 January 2014
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Kagawa, Januzaj; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidić, Buttner, Zaha, Anderson, Giggs, Fletcher, Young, Hernández
Spurs (4-4-2): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Chiriches, Rose; Lennon, Dembélé, Capoue, Eriksen; Soldado, Adebayor. Subs from: Friedel, Chadli, Naughton, Fryers, Bentaleb, Fredericks, Veljkovic, Holtby, Lamela
United 76 Draw 41 United 36
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D Can
Fourth Official: N Swarbrick