Manchester United’s 10 days of tribulations is now underway, opening with a trickier-than-it-looked victory over AS Saint-Etienne in the Europa League. The Reds take a 3-0 lead into the second leg in France, which should provide ample cushion to rest some key names as the fixtures continue to pile up. José Mourinho was not altogether satisfied with United’s display against les Verts, but two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing stages – adding to his bizarre opener – means that the manager can look to Sunday’s FA Cup trip to Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers in isolation.
It’s the beginning of yet another pivotal period at Manchester United. As the club continues to compete on all fronts, it was inevitable that the tests would increase for José Mourinho and his players. Four games across three competitions, including a cup final, all crammed into an intimidating 10 day package will certainly do that. Mourinho has challenged players to prove they are good enough to be at the club, and he will likely have drawn conclusions on who fits that criteria when the final whistle blows at Wembley in just over a week. First, however, the Europa League returns with the visit of French side Saint-Etienne.
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.
Following Manchester United’s disappointing draw against Liverpool at Old Trafford, José Mourinho desperately needed his team to get back on track in the Premier League. It wasn’t to be at Stoke City on Saturday. Any tie at Stoke is challenging, although Mourinho will feel it was one that United should have overcome. Juan Mata’s unfortunate own-goal, together with a string of missed opportunities at the other end, was hardly the way to get the Reds’ season back on course. Good job that Wayne Rooney was on hand to score a 95th-minute free kick, rescuing the day and lifting the striker to the top of the all-time United scorers list.
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.
Following Manchester United’s less-than-impressive start to the season José Mourinho’s side is now on a bit of a roll. Eight wins in succession in all competitions, including a 4-0 drubbing of Championship outfit Reading in the FA Cup, means confidence is at the highest point it’s been since last summer. It’s a run the Reds can continue when Hull City arrives at Old Trafford for a League Cup semi-final this Tuesday.
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.
It felt right, didn’t it? The Stretford End “sucked the ball in,” as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it after Manchester United scored two late goals to beat Middlesbrough at Old Trafford. The intensity with which José Mourinho’s side attacked as the clock wound down drew memories of yesteryear. The rush of adrenaline as Anthony Martial equalised; the euphoria of that late Paul Pogba winner. Three points. Momentum firmly with the Reds.
José Mourinho has gained a reputation for alienating many in the game. The big personality, robust ego and single-minded drive to win is ill-suited to making friends. Yet, the Portuguese manager comes face-to-face this weekend with one of his few friends in the game, former assistant and Middlesbrough coach Aitor Karanka. It’ll be a meeting of minds as well as colleagues. Yet, with Manchester United desperate to add a fifth straight league win as momentum builds, there’ll be little time for friendship at Old Trafford on Saturday.