Manchester City’s eye raising draw with Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday has changed the Premier League title race dynamic once again in a season of frequent surprises. Within sight of a two point gap at kick off on Tuesday, Roberto Mancini’s side will slip to seven points off the lead should Manchester United beat Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
Victory at Old Trafford promises a significant carrot for Ferguson’s team, and with City facing Liverpool at Eastlands next Sunday there will be more than a few United supporters counting on a even greater gap by Saturday evening.
Indeed, City’s slip against relegation fodder QPR has opened up a huge opportunity for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men against the Saints. While the south coast side certainly gave United a genuine test earlier this season – the fixture in which Robin van Persie scored his first goal for the club – Southampton remains in deep trouble, just three points off the relegation zone.
The Saints arrive, if not in disarray, then in a state of considerable flux. Much loved manager Nigel Adkins was sacked on 18 January despite a record of just two defeats in the club’s previous 12 matches. His replacement, the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, comes with a coaching pedigree at Espanyol in La Liga, together with 20 caps for his national team.
Yet, Saints’ fans, angry at the manner of Adkins’ dismissal, have not been slow to voice disapproval. It is a sentiment that Ferguson, always supportive of the managers’ union – Rafael Benitez aside – has been quick to echo ahead of Soton’s trip north.
“I spoke to [Adkins] the day before he was sacked,” said Sir Alex on Tuesday.
“He phoned me about his situation there. I mean I can’t understand these things. I think their form had picked up. Was it two defeats in 12 games? That’s not bad for a team at the bottom of the league.
“Southampton’s fans have got a way of demonstrating and there were a few banners up at the Everton game. It’s nice in terms of recognising the contribution Adkins made. He brought them up into the division and it’s not an easy job.
“The game prior to losing his job, they were 2-0 down to Chelsea but they came back and got a draw. Arsenal had the same situation and got to 2-1 but couldn’t quite get the second goal. The task of getting back at Chelsea on their home ground when you’re 2-0 down is pretty impressive.”
Southampton’s impressive display in the goalless draw with Everton a fortnight ago said much about the team’s fighting spirit in recent weeks even if too few goals scored, allied to far too many conceded, left Adkins side teetering on the brink before the Englishman’s dismissal.
Meanwhile, United host new coach Pochettino with the home side in rude health. Just Ashley Young and Jonny Evans will be absent through injury. The packed squad leaves Ferguson with plenty of selection dilemmas, especially with van Persie, Rio Ferdinand and Anotonio Valencia due to come back into the side after the trio sat out United’s comfortable FA Cup victory last Saturday.
Ferguson may opt to bring Tom Cleverley or Paul Scholes back into midfield, although Anderson impressed in United’s total dominance of Fulham in the cup. Meanwhile, van Persie and Wayne Rooney should be reunited in attack, with Nani, Valencia and Shinji Kagawa competing for, perhaps, two wide spots.
Whatever the team selection United can look forward to a fixture period that includes matches against Southamton, Fulham and Everton in the league prior to the European fixture at Santiago Bernabéu. There is every reason for supporters to believe that United can secure nine points prior to the Euro game.
Meanwhile, the visitors will make a late call on the fitness of Adam Lallana, while striker Guilhermo do Prado and defender Jose Fonte will miss the clash with knee injuries.
The travelling supporters are not expected to make any significant protest against the club’s management at Old Trafford. Although the voices of disapproval were heard at St. Mary’s after Pochettino’s appointment, widespread protest has yet to materialise.
Certainly, the new Southampton manager has played a cute public relations game in the past 10 days, although results will define his relationship with the travelling support above all else. After all, Adkins achieved two promotions with the club, while the Argentine is yet to achieve anything of note as a coach.
The manner of appointment leaves Pochettino’s bank of credit in debt from the off; United hope to make another sizeable withdrawal with victory on Wednesday night.
“I don’t know a lot about him to be honest but I will have a chat with my brother [Martin] as he’s been scouting in Spain,” said Ferguson of the Premier League’s newest manager.
“It won’t matter in this particular game as he’s just at the club but they had a fantastic response against Everton. They should have won as they were superb and could have been five-up in the first half. Tim Howard had a fantastic game, they hit the woodwork and Rickie Lambert missed a couple of chances. They played really well against Everton who are at the top of their game and playing really well.”
It should be a home-banker whatever Ferguson’s tact, although the Reds’ inability to shut the opposition out this season has encouraged visiting sides to attack at Old Trafford. Some have profited from the bravery, although Fulham’s performance last weekend was anything but.
Still, Ferguson is keen for complaceny to be eradicated as United seek to drive home a significant advantage.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Sir Alex. “We’ve got Southampton on Wednesday, then we go to Fulham and then it’s Everton at home. These are big games, massive games.
“Teams will drop points. Not just us but Manchester City will drop points, absolutely, it’s a certainty. We’ll probably drop two or three ourselves but the important thing is accepting the challenge that every game is just as difficult as the rest.”
Manchester United v Southampon – Premier League, Old Trafford – 30 January 2013 8pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Nani; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Smalling, Buttner, Scholes, Giggs, Anderson, Kagawa, Welbeck, Hernandez
Southampton (4-5-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw; Schneiderlin, Ramirez, Cork, Guly, Puncheon; Lambert. Subs from: K Davis, Fox, Richardson, S Davis, Chaplow, De Ridder, Rodriguez
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: R West, S Bennett
Fourth official: P Tierney
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Fulham 2, Draw 1
Overall: United 46, Fulham 14, Draw 18
- Robin van Persie’s goal scoring this season has allowed Wayne Rooney to drop deeper, a move supported by the Scouser’s stats which show he makes more passes per minute in the opposition half than any other Premier League striker;
- Tom Cleverley provided the assist for van Persie’s goal in United’s fixture against Tottenham Hotspur – just his second of the season, despite having completed 386 passes in the opposition half at a rate of one every 3 minutes 6 seconds;
- United defender Phil Jones made five blocks during the game against Spurs, the joint second highest number of the season;
- Southampton’s new manager Pochettino has inherited the hardest working team in the Premier League – Southampton’s players have covered more ground than any other team with a total of 1474 miles;
- Morgan Schneiderlin takes the individual trophy for most distance run with a total of 148.2 miles so far this season, one of only five players to have topped 140 miles;
- Schneiderlin has also completed 414 passes in the opposition half this season, more than any other Saints player;
- Rickie Lambert is Southampton’s top ranked player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored ten goals in the Premier League at a rate of one every 191 minutes 40 seconds, and one every 5.1 shots;
- Lambert also has five assists to his name, meaning he has contributed to exactly half of Southampton’s 30 Premier League goals this season.