Tuesday, 30 December 2014

GOAL SHY?

Manchester United have well documented problems but scoring a goal is not one of them, or at least should not be one of them. Therefore quite how to explain the scoreless stalemate at White Harte Lane on Sunday is rather incomprehensible. With a forward line that betters all but 2 in world football, finding the back of the net is supposed to be our go to for any failings of our defence. For once, it was the defenders that could shamelessly cash their cheques for Sunday's work.

Perhaps the biggest irony was that all our forwards had at least one good chance to score and yet none of them managed to. In fairness Hugo Lloris had a blinder of a performance but Juan Mata for instance has no business skying that second half sitter. That is not to take anything away from the Spaniard because I thought he had his best away performance with us this season. What's for certain is that the focus at Stoke will shift from how well the defence plays to whether we can find the net this time.

In isolation, a point against Spurs away from home is not the worst result to come away with but the context of this particular game means that it was 2 points dropped for us. Therein the last 4 dropped points at Villa and Spurs lies the reason why we cannot win the league title this year. Louis van Gaal made that point clear to the players in the dressing room post match. Again, that is not to say that we cannot make a title challenge of it. Because our result was suprisingly matched by the 2 sides above us, Sunday was not as bad as it could have been. However, the frustration is that when you factor in the 4 dropped points at Villa and then at Spurs, you wonder how close to the summit of the table we would have been if we had turned those draws into victories, as champions often do.

The biggest positive from the game was that for the first time since pre-season, we played the 3-5-2 and looked relatively comfortable. Whether that is down to doing the same thing over and over again or naming an unchanged line-up for the first time since November 2012, time will tell, but there was a risk in going to London and using it. Spurs, like most sides we shall visit in London always come out to attack us. It means games against them are squarely down to strength of the 2 sides on the day. It's why we've never lost a game there since the dawn of the millenium. With the Arsenal game in recent memory, I wondered how we would cope with them coming at our three centre backs regularly, exploiting the space between our wing backs and centre backs. As it turned out, Ashley and TonyV did well enough to track back at speed and cover their areas as well as denying Spurs any form of width. With Rafael and Luke Shaw making substitute appearances, it will be interesting to see who the manager goes with on New Years Day at Stoke.

The game at Stoke is now a pressure game for us in a different way. Our latest slip up has allowed the chasing pack to claw within 3 points of us. The one saving grace is that of the lot, Southampton and Arsenal are in direct competition next matchday so victory at the Brittania will have definite rewards. There's going to be some agricultural football and challenges on Thursday and a bit of blood will have to be spilled enroute to the final whistle. You hope that 3 days' rest should hold the players in good stead to start 2015 on the right note.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

AWAY DAYS TROUBLES

After what seemed like a routine three points at home yesterday, Manchester United embark on the real tests of their festive schedule tomorrow at White Harte Lane. It's not that Newcastle are not a test of their own but that the next two assignments are away from home.

Performances and results away from the M16 have been too few and far in between that our season so far is built squarely upon our home form. It's not even because we've had a tough run of away games as venues like the King Power or Turf Moor have also proved to be a tough ask for our players.

On Sunday, the task will be as tough as they come away from home. United have not beaten Spurs in the last four meetings, a run that stretches back to the jolly-good days of Sir Alex Ferguson. We've also been outplayed by them in a couple of those games. If winning on Boxing Day was achieved with something in reserve, Sunday will demand that the players go full throttle.

Spurs are not without their problems mind you. Our forward line should be able to cause them quite the headache but it's our own defence or lack of it that will make hearts travel the full body length from chest to mouth, back to chest, then to feet.

Neither of Evans or Jones instills confidence to the neutral and yet they shall be asked to keep a three man backline free of breach. With a 3-5-2 system affording the opposition acres of space between the centre-halves, the likes of Eric Lamela and Eriksen could be in for some late Christmas presents.

Spurs like to play at pace, breaking forward in unison and so are there for the taking on the counter attack. The caveat for us though is Juan Mata's form away from home as he's vital to our counter-attack. If we're without Di Maria and Herrera for this one as well then we'll need him to turn up big time.

It will be interesting to see how LVG manages his quickest game in succession. No matter the changes in terms of personnel, the expectations remain. In terms of the bigger picture though, United need to sort out their away form. Another victory in London is a start,

Friday, 26 December 2014

THE BETTER UNITED

In the end, the three points turned out to be a formality. United were probably as suspect at the back but despite Newcastle playing two forwards all game, we were hardly troubled and only lost the cleansheet because of a needless challenge by Phil Jones in the box late on. That was as good as it got for Alan Pardew.

Louis van Gaal on the other hand will be thankful that crucial elements of his team came to the fore. For starters, Radamel Falcao was a pleasant nuisance in Newcastle's side. He displayed the hunger and desire that you feel he will need on a consistent basis to lure United into paying another £43m for him next July. His unselfish assist for the opener will not go unrecorded from LVG's writing pad. One hopes that the only reason he was taken off today is because he is a shoe in to start on Sunday.

Juan Mata is the other player who crucially turned up on the day. He did his part in the Number 10 role as brilliantly as he seems to do at home. Question marks still hang over his ability to replicate that form away from home. He is one of those we need to maintain that form into Sunday if we are to record a similar result. Take nothing away though from his brilliant inter-passing movement today. His assist for the second was a peach.

The biggest disappointment was how United tailed off after that third goal. Maybe it was down to conserving energy for the programme ahead but it reinforced the manager's frustration that United are not dominating games for 90 minutes.

Ultimately, today was a further stat added to our brilliant home form that has seen us win all but a couple of games there this season. We might achieve little this season by our standards but making Old Trafford a fortress seems well enroute to being accomplished. There's an air of routineness about games at home these days. That's fantastic.

It therefore begs the question how much better off we would be if our away form was better, which leads nicely into Sunday's fixture. For starters it's an away game. Then it's at White Harte Lane. It will be interesting how LVG counters Spurs' strength but most importantly, how he manages the squad for a second game in 48hrs.

But we can be thankful for another Boxing Day win today----the 50th in English football. We've opened up a gap, albeit small, between us and fourth, and have kept the summit of the league table on the horizon. It was all we could ask for today.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

CHRISTMAS WISHES

For the first time in 27 years, Manchester United players will have Christmas Day off. How's that for a Christmas wish! With a Boxing Day fixture a traditional occassion in England, Christmas Day has always been about final preparations for the following day's work. Such has been the case at least since Sir Alex took charge and indeed during last season's traumatic David Moyes mini-era.

Christmas Day at work probably explains United's near flawless record in Boxing Day fixtures. United have only lost one game on December 26th in the premier league era. Fingers crossed that the day off pre-match does not upset that record.

United head into the meeting with Newcastle United on the back of a dropped two points at Villa Park last weekend. That result has put us under considerable pressure from the chasing pack and also probably fataly dented our title hopes. But this season was never about the title. The target remains to secure third place and hence automatic qualification to the Champions League. Anything beyond that is a bonus. We've got a rough run in at the end of the season, so between now and March, we have the all important clear run of winnable fixtures to make or break our season.

The frutstration though has been we've not been able to steer clear of injuries. If at first we struggled to put together a defence, now we cannot patch up a decent midfield. Wayne Rooney should deputise for Fellaini once again whilst the absence of Herrera meana that our bench on Friday will be thin in the middle. If Di Maria starts central midfield just on top of Carrick, we might have something going in that department.

It's no use challenging Louis van Gaal's choice systems. The 3-5-2, despite its obvious weaknesses seems destined to remain a part of United. Fingers crossed the bounce of the ball goes our way because in that system we shall need it.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, 22 December 2014

TEMPERING THE TITLE TALK

You just knew it was going to happen. After defying the odds to pick up consecutive wins over two months, it all ends at the ground where we almost always win. That's football. Nothing knew. Obviously it felt terrible not to keep that run going but if we had been offered 6 wins and a draw in October, we'd all have taken it in one breath.

The harsh reality is despite the improvement from last season, United are not yet in the frame of a title victory. Mind you, that does not mean United cannot challenge for the title. The two statements are different. United are still unbeaten since October and can still put on another run of wins to get closer to the top two. The caveat though is that somewhere down the line we shall drop unncessary points, as was the case at Villa Park. Using a template of the last 10 title wins, to be champions only affords you a maximum of 5 draws and 5 defeats over the entire season. It means there is a minimum requirement of 28 wins. As it stands we've already exhausted the draws category with our 5th draw coming last weekend. We can still afford to be beaten twice more, but I think by now you get the task that I'm driving at if we are to still harbour title hopes.

Our objective right now is to mind the gap between ourselves and the chasing pack. Ideally we're supposed to be only worried about Arsenal and Liverpool. However, West Ham's enduring form has now brought them to within a point of us. It means we cannot keep third place beyond another slip up. After getting in the mix of title talk, the last thing we need is to get ourselves in the scrumble for 4th spot that our rivals are currently sucked into.

Therefore for us, the lesson from Saturday is to get up and go again. There's 9 points to win before the league takes a weekend off to accommodate the FA Cup. Given that some of the sides in and around us are against each other in a couple of the rounds ahead, the opportunity is still there to keep our own decent run going. All the above though is in light of the way forward but it doesn't mask the fact that we were decidedly poor on Saturday.

Pre-match, Louis van Gaal was on about how he wanted the side to perform well alongside continuing the results streak. Whereas the Dutch coach's desire for a great team display is to be admired, he will have appreciated on Saturday that the result is perhaps of greater significance than the performance. Overtime, the manager can get to train United to a level of football that he desires, but the now requires winning results whilst enroute to that target.

Individually, I thought Jonny Evans struggled AGAIN. It's a shame that he has been overtaken by Chris Smalling in terms of defensive maturity. He's now vulnerable to replacement as and when United beef up their defensive options in the summer. It's not to suggest the rest fared much better. Ashely Young though did his job. His performance on the left could not be faulted and only tailed off when moved to the right.

The biggest irony of our season is that the three at the back system, designed to give us defensive security, has made us look so defensively insecure. It's  a shame that even with a fit Rafael, the manager is not prepared to ditch the 3-5-2. Now try to work out why when we struggle, we end games with 4 at the back, looking more secure, chasing results that the earlier system put beyond our reach. Whether it explains why the players were lacklustre on Saturday is up for debate. What is for certain is United cannot continue to have slow build up play, and only step up a gear when the opposition get the ball cue a scramble to defend.

In a twisted way of thinking about it, we might have gotten away with it as Falcao managed to salvage a point. Despite our domination, we of all clubs know Villa could have won the game with just the 3 decent chances they had all match. That we got the point in end was perhaps not the worst form of punishment that could have come our way especially given how poorly we played.

With home comforts in the next fixture, there is really only one acceptable result when Newcastle United visit on Boxing Day.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

IN SEARCH OF A 7TH HEAVEN

Every club has that one opponenet against whom they boast an impeccable record, against whom they'd be almost certain of victory even when below par. If there's more than one such opponent for Manchester United, Aston Villa definitely make that list. United head to Villa Park for a rare three o'clock fixture seeking an unprecedented (in this season at least) 7th straight premier league win.

If the pair of fixtures against Southampton and Liverpool were to be feared, Saturday's trip Paul Lambert's side was supposed to be the breather in between two further tests against Newcastle United on Boxing Day and Tottenham on the first day of 2015. As things turned out though, United came through those fixtures with maximum points to stir talk of a title challenge from a side many tipped to finish outside the top 4 when Leicester City recorded a 5-3 fluke in September.

It's hard to imagine United coming away from Villa Park without all three points as it is the proverbial happy hunting ground. Even David Moyes managed to look good there last December recording a comfortable 3-0 win. The resurgence in the side, you'd imagine, should just about be enough to put this one to bed. In fact, on paper, the next dropped points (if any) can only reasonably be expected tp be dropped at White Harte Lane on New Year's Day.

BUT, in the words of one great Scot, football has a way of kicking you in the teeth! The game is never played on paper. United's flaws, that have been apparent throughout the six game winning run, can still be punished by anyone if they remain uncorrected. Certainly you'd hope that our defence shall not be as generous to Christian Benteke as they were to Raheem Sterling.

Saturday marks the first of four fixtures over a busy festive period. The result at Villa Park will therefore set the tone. If Wayne Rooney actually meant that United are going for the title this season, then obviously the shackles are off. Every game from hereon is an opportunity to shake the very foundations on which the premier league is built.

Last minute injuries permitting, we should have a strong team out. Angel Di Maria should make his return whilst Radamel Falacao is desperately due a start. If he doesn't start such a fixture, when fit, with no derby pressure or anything like that, then goodness knows what it will take. With Michael Carrick back in the side, there is no need to start Marouanne Fellaini in such a fixture. We finally have all the players to waltz a side in the manner we did at the start of the season. Whether the boss thinks otherwise remains to be seen, but come what may, the three at the back system needs to be done away with as soon as possible. In fact, if Villa away suddenly proves to be tough, it could have everything to do with the 3-5-2. We've incredibly gotten away with it so far agaisnt some good sides, but you can only push your luck so far.

Nonetheless, a result regardless of the torture the formation puts us through during the game, will do just fine.

Monday, 15 December 2014

UNITED STUFF 'EM GOOD

So it goes on. Six wins in a row is not neccessarily alien to Manchester United but it's been a while since. I did blog earlier in the month that we were in for a run of tricky fixtures largely based on the trip to St Marys' and the home tie against Liverpool. That we've come from those fixtures with maximum points will take a while to sink in.

The irony is that whatever difficulty we faced enroute to those points was self-induced. It's there for everyone to see that United don't seem to understand how to effectively play a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-1-2 but Louis van Gaal has remained steadfast in that approach. At Southampton, moving the ball between defence and attack was akin to trying to find a solution to a complicated maths problem. If you factor in the performance at Arsenal in which we also used a 3-5-2, and contrast that with the times LVG has gone with a back four, the difference in performances couldn't be any more stark.

Whilst we'd come to imagine that LVG favours that system only away from home, Sunday proved to be the exception. United were going 3-5-2 at home against Liverpool. More amusingly, Liverpool were going to use the same system, but worse: they didn't have a recongised striker on the pitch. It didn't require any level of tactical analysis to immediately see where the game would be won. Both sides were going to get chances but United were going to be more clinical than Liverpool.

That David De Gea (who is already a favourite for Player of the Year) was given the Man of the Match award even after a 3-0 win is testament that United (not least because of the formation) were poor again. That particular frustration ends with the performance because beyond that it was joy watching United stuff Liverpool. A win against that lot, no matter how it comes is epic. That we've contributed to making their season even worse is all that a fan could ask of the players yesterday.

More importantly though, United are back to within 8 points of he summit. Now, although its 'greedy' to ask for a title this season, I can't help but recall that there are at least three seasons in which we've been 8 points off the top in mid December and yet went on to win the title. So its do-able, but because football has a way of kicking you in the teeth, you wonder whether we can continue to navigate our way through games. The chances that our defence affords teams means that at some point, De Gea will be wrong footed, or not be lucky enough to deflect goal bound efforts onto the post. Louis van Gaal post match said sometimes you have to 'force the luck'. If all this is down to forced luck then long may they work at forcing it because at the moment it's getting us past landmines. You know, like when Jonny Evans felt determined to hand Liverpool a way back into the match by passing it straight to Sterling with just De Gea left to beat; or when Marouanne Fellaini made a similar misplaced pass that led to Southampton's equaliser on Monday.

Whilst De Gea has been lauded most for the results lately, Michael Carrick deserves at least an honourable mention. In the frenzied chaos that is our defence, Michael has still managed to sustain a degree of sanity and composure at the back, picking out his teammates more accurately than anyone and serving as an unspecting 'quarterback'. His position on the pitch now means he will hardly be marked and yet he has the perfect eye for a pass to the forwards that has often caught teams offguard. One wonders where we would be if we hadn't lost him for the start of the season. De Ge has been there from the start but this run of wins dates to Michael's return to the starting XI. It's amazing how David Moyes failed to get these performances from him. Perhaps the biggest indictment on Moyes' time was that all players that started yesterday were available to him last season.

Next up is the start of the traditional fixture pile-up over the festive season. 18 points from the last 18 available has put us on quite a foundation to do something special. Whether we can continue to force the luck into 2015 is uncertain. There are many ways and many reasons to pour cold water over United's season so far. Indeed, there are still many caveats to the argument that United are back to the good old times but for as long as this run of results lasts, we'll continue to be drunk in love with United...and there's no room for rationalisation in drunkenness.

Friday, 12 December 2014

HATRED!

It doesn't get more bitter than this. Manchester United vs Liverpool is founded on hatred. It's not because this is England's premier football fixture, it's that we love to hate them as much as they love to hate us.

When Luis Suarez (God rest his teeth) scored Liverpool's third in this fixture last season, Old Trafford burst into  a chain of singing that bewildered neutrals. Here were the Scousers ratting all over Old Trafford and yet the chanting in the stands was as though we'd won the European Cup. The explanation is simple. Well, sort of. It was the equivalent of taking a mouthful of vodka to ease the pain during a circumcision operation without the relief of anaesthetics. For those fans at the stadium that day, the pain of watching Liverpool hold a three goal lead on our turf could only be erased by bellowing out their lungs in chanting their way to the full time whistle.
That result was one of only two in the nightmare reign of David Moyes that Sir Alex highlighted as being 'annoyed' at.

In a somewhat role reversal, Liverpool make the short trip to the M16 9 months on, looking every bit as poor as United were that Sunday in March. United on the other hand head into this fixture looking for a 6th league win on the trot and as the premier league's in-form team. It's a given that form doesn't count for anything in derbies but whichever patched up United side lines up against Liverpool on Sunday, confidence will be far greater in those in red.

Without really being consistent in performances, Louis van Gaal seems to be on that run of wins that usually follows a run of bad form in his early management of any side he's been in charge of. However, the nature of the premier league is way too toxic to muster 18 games on a winning run that he managed say at Bayern Munich or the 16 on the bounce at Barcelona. That is not least because there is not much of a gap between a strong team in England and a weaker side thanks to the equittable distribution of TV money. If Champions-elect Chelsea who apparently have a balanced squad have seen an 8 point lead over Manchester City cut to just three in the space of 4 weeks, then how much of a task is it for a United team that picks up an injury every week? The important thing though is to bounce back from every disappointing result with a new run of wins. It was always Sir Alex's post match interview message after a defeat that the next step is to bounce back. When our run ends, that ought to be the message, and not the negativity that will undoubtedly hit the media columns.

BUT it's still on and who's to say it cannot go on forever? (@£₩!) Anyhow, its about that time that we start counting our fingers and figuring out how far second place is for us. That ought to be the next target. You cannot rest on your laurels in this sport. Whereas Southampton and the chasing pack are not yet far enough from us to dismiss them, we finally have the top of the league in sight. Chelsea now only has an 8 point lead over us......LESS THAN THREE GAMES! Whereas its almost impossible for two sides to simultaneoulsy slip up to allow a third side to take initiative, it would be really fun giving those two a major headache in the title race. As the third placed side, we now have a major say in where the title ends up. It's increasingly becoming difficult to beat United which means that of the top 2, the side that fails to take maximum points off United will lose major ground...more like the role Chelsea played last season to determine where the title would end up.

Obviously there's no pride in playing side-kick to major honours but think about it....weren't we supposed to be fighting to get in the Champions League for the entirity of this season? If we feel that we've achieved that 5 months ahead of schedule, then why not take out practice sessions at the summit battles that will be on the expectation card for next season?

Ultimately, it comes down to one game at a time. Whereas it's pointless to second guess the manager's tactics for the game, we've been solid with a back four of any kind at home. If Angel Di Maria is passed fit, a diamomd formation in the middle featuring Carrick and Fellaini or Herera would see us at our explosive best. If he takes the cautious 3-5-2 approach, then like Monday night, we could be forced to live through a nail biting period in the match. That will not be because Liverpool are good but because the 3 at the back system is not yet quite home with many of our players.

To be fair to the boss, it is increasingly the case that in the absence of Shaw, he can only play Ashley Young in the wing back role. It seems like it forces his hand. There is a danger though when you have space on the wings and you are up against a winger of the pace of Raheem Sterling. Again, a detail you expect will not get past a manager as detailed in his preparation as Louis van Gaal.

All that notwithstanding, on a derby day of any kind, not least this one, the players owe the fans. It gets personal on Sunday.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

'MURDER' HE SAID

In the words of Louis van Gaal, 'ex-legend' Gary Neville has somehow emerged from Monday Night's premier league fixture as the focal point from the fallout of events at St Marys' stadium. Apparently, the 'ex-legend' thought United got away with murder from the South Coast. Spare a thought for United's Dutch manager: his limited comprehension of English metaphors and expressions meant that when the question was posed to him, he was bewildered out of his iron skin for  a second. He only brought a team down from the north to play a game of football and here he was being asked about his role in the commission of a capital offence!

Those more acquainted with the twists and turns of the English language were immediately aware that the ex-legend meant nothing of the sort. Neville was essentially referring to the general narrative of the game: United played poorly, Southampton played well, United won the match.

There's a reason why a league season is a better judge of the best team than a Cup tournament--endurance of consistency. Whereas a Cup tournament requires a side to put together as minute a run as 6 wins (as is the case with the FA Cup), 6 wins in a league will only take you as far as you can throw a rock. If you're lucky in a Cup competition for even just a couple of games, the chances of success are mathematically greater than if you're lucky for all of 6 games in a league format.

Endurance of consistency has many facets to it such as consistency in performances but the most important of all is consistency in results. The latter is the holy grail. Jose Mourinho would take 3 shots on target for every match throughout the season if it meant his team eventually won the match. At least Sir Alex relied on consistency of results ahead of performances in the latter years of his reign----and he didn't care a jot if it meant victory.

Now back to Neville's argument: In isolation, the comment is fair because United were that poor on the night, but that evaluation is devoid of the most important facet about last night's game---consistency in results. For all the attempts to fill this morning's columns with tales of how United were basically a Sunday pub team, the only thing that will live beyond this week from last night is that Manchester United are now third in the Premier League, a place above the season's expectations, despite an injury list that would overwhelm Florence Nightingale. Indeed, getting away with murder is a crime that is so common in the league that we do not always notice when someone commits it. For instance Manchester United put on a worthy performance on the opening day against Swasea at Old Trafford: 68% possession, 12 shots on goal. Swansea on the other hand had 32% possession and 2 shots on target, let alone the 3 United had last night. Result: Manchester United 1-2 Swansea City. If that isn't 'murder' in Neville's context then I don't know what is.

Make no mistake; Gary was simply doing his job as a pundit. Again, on the night, the comment is fair, but to attempt to define United this season with it is to err. United have blown us away with enthralling performances this season, but by the dawn of November and coming away from the Etihad without a point despite putting on an admirable performance with a man less for 52 minutes,  firmly in 8th place on the log, we had all made up our minds to toss the performances and urgently string results together to keep in touch with our top 4 rivals. Remember?

Even so, that United can turn on the show is not in doubt. Only last week, Hull City were on the end of a hiding from a United team in full flow. However, to be consistent in performances when we get a new injury every week and can't name a similar starting XI for 2 straight games is asking too much of a side still taking off to a new philosophy. So if the available players can still guarantee consistency in results, then thank you very much, that will do just fine for me. Manchester United cannot be asked to apologise for coming away from St Mary's with three points if how they achieved it was not illegal.

If football is a results based business, then consistency in results and not consistency in performances is what it's all about. United delivered in that respect, and just to confirm, they didn't kill anyone.

All the above notwithstanding, given that the vermin visit on Sunday, I'd be more than pleased if we get away with actual murder this weekend.

Friday, 5 December 2014

MNF AT ST MARY'S

It has gone unnoticed, amind the euphoria of their latest run of form, that Manchester United start a run of tricky fixtures over December. Before 2015 is in, United have to negotiate fixtures against Southampton, Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs. There's a couple of winnable games in that run but none of the enlisted ones is a walk in the park by any means.

First up; the trip to St Mary's stadium on Monday night when United will look to win a 5th game on the bounce for the first time since Sir Alex hung up his chewing gum. It's game with everything to lose given that we could end up on either side of the spectrum come bed time on Monday.

Results from the sides below us over the last couple of rounds have meant that we've not really pulled away from the chasing pack despite our excellent form. Southampton on the other hand have seen their bubble burst and sufferred 2 defeats in the space of 3 days to City and Arsenal. As a result, we're within a point of the Saints ahead of our clash against them on Monday. It means the reward of 5th win on the bounce shall be the comfort of 3rd place on the log. It's a measure of United's progress over the last month but perhaps more crucially, an opportunity to cement their status as a top 4 side this season. The other side of the spectrum holds that we drop back into the midtable mire if we fail our next assignment.

Add to that the fact that its a first meeting between two Dutch managers who do not or at least have not gotten along and you have yourself a spicy Monday Night clash that Sky will milk to their full.

Southampton have not picked up any of the last six points on offer but they only failed at the Emirates because they had to negotiate the last few minutes a man down because of injury. Before then though, they had the measure of Arsenal. If we've learnt anything from their last two defeats is that they struggle when the opposition moves the ball quickly. Their third game in a week should further test their fitness levels. It's a detail that you feel shall not bypass Louis van Gaal given his meticulous preparation. Ultimately though, there is every opportunity for us to continue a run of form that has seen us merit a mention from premier league managers on the subject of the title race.

Injuries permitting we should be able to put out a stronger side than we did on Tuesday night, but the performance needs to match the Saturday victory over Hull. Anything less and we could be in for a nail biting affair on Monday night.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

WASTEFUL UNITED EDGE PAST STOKE

First it was Herrera presented with a virtually open goal, then Fellaini casually tried to place it past Begovic, then Wilson failed the easy part after doing all the hard work, then Fellaini replicated Herrera's earlier effort when all he had to do was hit the target......it goes on and on. As the clock ticked towards the 90 minute, you got the sinking feeling that Stoke were going to grab a second equaliser. And credit to them. They kept having a go at United despite being under constant threat of conceeding a two goal deficit. Against any other goalkeeper in the league, they would have got their leveller. Thankfully though, we have just about the only stopper in the league with points saving reflexes of that quality. Amazingly though it was not De Gea that got the loudest cheer from me on the night. Ashley Young did.

If for any ludicrous reason FIFA decide to suddenly come up with a golden foot award this season, Ashley Young should be a top three nominee if only because his foot was ultimately the difference between us collecting three points last night and just the one. He's nobody's cup of tea but last night, he applied himself well in the game. I lost count of how many times he beat two Stoke defenders by cutting in and skipping past challenges. He's emerged as a capable emergency left back in the same way Valencia has ably deputised for Rafael. If we're talking about players who have upped their game under the new manager, he's one. He's come in against Arsenal, Hull and Stoke and not once have we complained that we miss Luke Shaw. This is not to suggest that he's set the world alight in that role. It is rather an acknowledgement of the mitigating role Young has done on the left side of defence.

Juan Mata had his second brilliant game in two days and was worth the standing ovation he received at the end. His link up play with Carrick and Herrera has made it easy for the otherwise slow Fellaini to pick a pass as they make themselves available. Alongside Fellaini, they're on a mission to improve United's goal scoring record from midfield. It's been a while since we had a high scoring midfield. It's increasingly becoming less worrying when our forwards do not score.

And while we're at it, James Wilson, besides his poor finish after a great run, impressed. He seems blessed with decent pace for a striker and can beat a man easily. If he can keep his head down, he could be quite something at the club. His presence though was a testament of the injuries that United have at the moment. Wayne Rooney faces a race against time to male it on Monday whilst the manager seems to have ruled out Angel Di Maria for that one as well. More than anything, it is the fact that the manager has galvanised the players to work around the injury crisis that jas filled Old Trafford with optimism lately. It goes without saying that Louis van Gaal has finally got his team. This is no longer aside reeling from the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson or a side smarting from the confidence sapping team talks of David Moyes.

In the end, 6 points from the two home games was the minimum requirement and we've achieved that. It's pleasing that we've now put ourselves at within a point of Southampton ahead of our meeting next week. Subject to their result against Arsenal tonight, we could be third by bedtime on Monday. That though is a permutation for next MatchDay. For now United can bask in a run of consistency that has seen them amass 12 points out of the last 12 on offer.

It is just as well then that the Manchester United Christmas Party is tonight. I take it then that nobody will still be hungover on Monday evening.

Monday, 1 December 2014

STOKE VISIT ON A COLD TUESDAY NIGHT

There's a funny-odd metaphorical belief among Premier League fans that the true measure of a capable footballer is performing at your usual level on a cold night at Stoke. The essence is around the fact that the Brittannia is infamous for its elements and gale conditions that effectively alter the natural traits of a game of football. In absolute monsoon winds, it will rain, hail, and if you're unlucky snow, all in a 90minute episode in which you are still expected to control, pass and shoot the ball as though you're playing in a closed door stadium on artificial grass.

Thank goodness then that it is Stoke that make the visit and not us. At Old Trafford, United have everything going for them to subdue Stoke over 90 minutes.
The 3-0 success at home against Hull made it a first three on the bounce for the first time this season and maintained Champions League status. The expectation will be there tomorrow to keep that run going if only because we're at home.

Whereas we managed to notch up a first away win in London last week, it's at home that our season has been built so far. With 2 home games in quick succession, it is an opportunity to inch away from the sides immediately below us and eat into Southampton's lead over us. We're now 4 points off the Saints which means if results go our way over the next 2 rounds of fixtures, we could be third by Monday next week.

That though is a permutation that is hugely dependent on the result tomorrow night. Stoke will offer more fight than Hull did. They'll be better defensively and more potent on the counter attack. They're one of the lesser sides with a measure of the big boys and so they can go to the Etihad and win. In some ways therefore, you hope the standards will not have dropped given the stroll in the park the boys had on Saturday.

Injuries mean that it's difficult to keep the same line-up at the weekend, but given the performance, you suspect that the only changes that will be made will be enforced. But like Saturday, regardless of the team that goes out, the expectation will be to pick up all three points and make it 4 wins on the trot.