FA Cup defence begins with Royal visit
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.
Now, as 2017 begins, there is palpable optimism at Old Trafford. José Mourinho has overcome an underwhelming opening to his United career, and his expensively assembled squad is beginning to deliver the results to match a series of unrewarded, yet impressive, performances.
In contrast to his predecessor, Mourinho guided his team to five wins from six across the hectic December schedule, propelling United back into top four contention. The side now looks settled, coherent and free of the psychological shackles that were evident in the early weeks of the season. Van Gaal never found a settled team during his two years at the club, sometimes due to circumstances outwith his control, and as such there was never a great deal of optimism that the Dutchman was really the man for the job.
"Rewind to January 2016 and the mood at United could hardly have been more different. It was the disastrous conclusion to 2015 that sealed Van Gaal’s fate. As 2017 begins there is palpable optimism at Old Trafford. Mourinho’s squad is beginning to deliver results."
Mourinho, however, looks to have found a selection and system that look more formidable than anything witnessed at Old Trafford over the past few years. Summer signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have now all established themselves – and given a full quota to select from would all likely make it into the manager’s strongest team.
Ibrahimovic and Pogba have struck up a promising understanding, with Mkhitaryan beginning to establish himself after his baffling period of exile. Bailly, off representing Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations, has been unfortunate with injury in recent weeks, but several impressive showings in the early weeks of the season indicate he will be a valuable asset in the second half of the campaign.
The latter half of this season could be pivotal in determining United’s overall direction under Mourinho. The Reds clung to the coattails of the top four for several weeks, but the team is firmly in contention once again. While it is unlikely that Mourinho’s men will win the league from this position, a return to the Champions League next season is now very much in sight. This is a United side that believes in itself once again, and that is as crucial as the considerable amount of talent Mourinho has assembled. 2017 has the potential to be a benchmark year.
League form takes a backseat this weekend as attention turns to an FA Cup defence. Triumph at Wembley last May is the only meaningful silverware in the post-Fergie era, and the road to a second successive trophy begins against Championship outfit Reading.
Debate still surfaces regarding the modern-day prestige of the FA Cup, but last year’s dramatic late victory over Crystal Palace was a thoroughly memorable occasion.
United and Reading have not met since a thoroughly forgettable encounter was settled by a Wayne Rooney goal in March 2013. The Berkshire side was relegated at the end of that season. Perhaps more memorable was a breathless encounter at the Madejski Stadium in 2012, as seven goals in a manic first half saw the Reds emerge as 4-3 winners and consolidate a position at the Premier League summit.
The disregard for defending on show that day would surely have dismayed Reading’s current boss – former United centre-back Jaap Stam. The Dutchman has guided his side to third place in the Championship in his first full-time management position, and can enhance his burgeoning reputation against his former club.
Although Stam’s team is a promotion contender, it is not a side moulded in the manager’s image. Stam was a formidable presence at the heart of United’s treble-winning back four, but his team’s season has been built on attacking talent and not defensive solidity. The Royals have conceded more goals than any other side in the Championship’s top six, and face a United side that has found its feet in front of goal.
Despite Reading’s underdog status, Stam revealed that he is relishing the opportunity to take on Mourinho.
“I like the way he works and what he does for the team – he gets things going,” Stam said. “It’s nice to go back. I love the club, I love the fans and I had a great time there.”
Also returning to Old Trafford is defender Tyler Blackett, who spent time at Birmingham City and Celtic before securing a permanent deal at Reading. The 22-year-old became a symbol of Van Gaal’s failed attempt to implement a 3-5-2 system during his early months in Manchester.
Unfortunately for Blackett, he is most associated with United’s calamitous 5-3 defeat at Leicester City, in which he gave away a penalty was subsequently sent off. Blackett seems to have put those troubles behind him at least, and has made 18 appearances under Stam this season.
Although among the top scoring sides in the Championship, Reading does lack a prolific goalscorer. Winger Garath McCleary has notched eight goals, with Frenchman Yann Kermorgant closely following on seven. Kermorgant is an experienced campaigner with 136 career goals to his name, but United’s backline would be disappointed to be undone by the 35-year-old.
After a gruelling December schedule from which United has emerged relatively unscathed, Mourinho may be tempted to rest some of those who have played most. With a League Cup semi-final first leg against Hull City on Tuesday, there is justification in mixing up the team – not just to rest players, but to hand opportunities to those who have been unfortunate to miss out in recent matches.
United subs: De Gea, Darmian, Rojo, Carrick, Martial, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic
Reading subs:Subs: Cooper, Evans, Obita, Samuel, Meite, Kelly, Moore
Mourinho has already confirmed that Sergio Romero and Wayne Rooney will both start, as the club captain looks to ease his way back in following injury. Antonio Valencia has been an ever-present this campaign, but this half-way stage presents an opportunity to rest the born-again full-back ahead of big games to come. Ashley Young has been generally reliable when called upon, and should be able to deal with the threats posed down the right flank. Chris Smalling is in need of game time following his lay-off with a broken toe, allowing one of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo to recuperate ahead of the mid-week semi-final.
In midfield, Michael Carrick is be needed for the clash against Hull and latterly the visit of Liverpool to Old Trafford. Despite his unpopularity, Marouane Fellaini may be given another opportunity to repair his reputation in the middle of the pitch. Further forward, game-changing performances from Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata against West Ham United have earned them prominent roles in the Reds’ attack on Saturday.
"Some players, they need a little rest. Many players, they need to play. Many players, they deserve to play. I trust them all."José Mourinho
Rashford, in particular, deserves an opportunity to show what he can do as a striker in a Mourinho team – a chance he has not been afforded thus far. Ibrahimovic holds almost super-human age-defying fitness, but even the great Swede is deserving of a brief lay-off, if only to allow the mercurial Rashford a chance to impress.
Reading could present a stern test of United’s credentials. Recent form may have restored some of the fear factor to Old Trafford, but the Royals have nothing to lose against Mourinho’s men. The thrilling 4-3 victory over Reading in 2012 seemed to spur United on to defeat Manchester City in equally pulsating fashion the following week.
The League Cup semi-final and Liverpool await the Reds next week, and although the seven goal drama is not necessary, a convincing victory will propel United head first into a potentially defining week.
Andre Marriner (Referee)
Simon Bennett, Edward Smart (Assistants)
Graham Scott (Fourth Official)
United 2-0 Reading