Relief, at last, from the many long nights of international boredom. The real stuff happens this weekend, with José Mourinho’s Manchester United in Premier League action against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Such is the malaise surrounding FIFA’s lengthy two-year World Cup qualification process that the nation awaits the Premier League’s return, save for Arsenal supporters, for whom a meaningless friendly between Andora and Vanuatu is merciful respite from the soul crushing misery of their reality.
As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
There were few who failed to notice José Mourinho’s notably subdued demeanour as his players celebrated their first trophy of the season. The Manchester United manager stood alone on the Wembley turf, displaying almost no emotion. Perhaps his team’s performance in last Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton was not to his liking; maybe he really is as miserable as some claim, or perhaps he had the look of a man who knows his job is only just beginning.
When Watford’s favourite son, the late Graham Taylor, brought his team to Old Trafford for a League Cup Third Round tie in 1978 the Hornets left the Rainy City with a 2-1 victory. The goals, both from Luther Blissett, handed Watford the club’s only win on the red side of Manchester. Back in September, the contemporary version also beat United, this time at Vicarage Road. The calamitous 3-1 defeat for the Reds concluded a series of three reverses on the bounce for José Mourinho’s outfit. Neither United nor the Portuguese manager can accept a similar outcome as Watford visits Old Trafford on Saturday.
What is it with the Premier League this season. It is as if, Chelsea aside, nobody really wants to confirm a place in next season’s Champions League, let alone challenge for the title. Manchester United’s victory over last season’s champions Leicester City on Sunday means that there are now just five points between Tottenham Hotspur in second and the Reds in sixth. The only consistency is, apparently, inconsistency.
It looked oh-so-promising for a couple of months, but Manchester United’s resurgence under José Mourinho has stalled. The Reds have taken just six points from 12 in the Premier League since the turn of the year, compared to a run of five consecutive victories to end 2016. United’s winning run was always going to end, but it is the performance dip and inability to capitalise on opponents dropping points that is causing most concern. Mourinho’s men are under intense pressure to buck this trend on Sunday at Leicester City.
It’s another week, another game against Hull City. Three meetings in 23 days with Marco Silva’s side generates a Groundhog Day feeling, but despite the repetition this fixture is no less important for José Mourinho and his men. United’s momentum was significantly slowed by disappointing draws against Liverpool and Stoke City in the team’s last two league outings, but the arrival of Hull represents the ideal opportunity to refocus.
Manchester United’s run of nine straight victories came to a somewhat unsatisfying end last week, as Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point. The Reds’ unbeaten record was rescued only by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header, as José Mourinho was left to reflect on points dropped. The joy sparked by the Swede’s improvisational finish quickly dissipated after the final whistle in the knowledge that Jurgen Klopp’s side would head back down the M62 harbouring considerable satisfaction. This week, United travels to Stoke, looking to recover from last week’s derby disappointment.
Manchester United failed to record victory against one of the Premier League’s top fives sides on Sunday – it was the fifth time in six matches in this particular group that the Reds have come away with fewer than three points. Defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, together with draws against Arsenal and Liverpool, leaves José Mourinho’s team with the worst head-to-head record between the top six. Progress at Old Trafford is genuine, but save for victory over Spurs, it is largely based on beating those below United in the table. With Champions League qualification far from guaranteed, this pattern is Mourinho’s most critical challenge over the next five months.
It’s nine victories in a row for Manchester United, the longest winning run since the 2008/09 title-winning campaign. Six of those wins have come in the league, yet the Reds remain stuck in sixth place – Mourinho’s men are running to stand still. It is a frustrating anomaly, but there is much more to the team’s turnaround than league standing. After what seems like an eternity, it feels like watching United again. What more could be asked heading into Liverpool’s visit on Sunday?