Manchester United could cap off a January to remember with a win over Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday. José Mourinho’s squad limped into the new year after a rather dour festive period, but bounced back to post a 100% mark so far this month. Even better, the defense has not been breached since Boxing Day, totaling six clean sheets in a row. Add in the transfer swap for Alexis Sánchez and 2018 has started in fine fashion for the Reds.
Both United and Spurs hit the road last weekend to face League Two opposition in the FA Cup. Mourinho will be the happier of the two managers, as his side killed off Yeovil Town with a ruthless second-half scoring spree. Tottenham, though, struggled against Newport County, needing a Harry Kane 82nd minute equalizer to spare their blushes.
For United, it’s quite possible that the only starting eleven holdover from the weekend will be Alexis Sánchez. The new boy played 72 minutes on his debut, notching an assist and man-of-the-match honors. Even though he played little for Arsenal during his prolonged January transfer saga, Sánchez showed no signs of rust and looked every bit as good as advertised.
The biggest question looming over this match is how Mourinho will set up his midfield. For most of the season, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić have manned the middle as a pair, but the manager occasionally adds a reinforcement in big matches. If he does so on Wednesday, that probably means dropping Wembley hero Jesse Lingard to the bench.
Lingard relishes playing at the national stadium, scoring important goals in the 2016 FA Cup final, the Community Shield, and last season’s League Cup final. In recent months, he has transformed himself from inconsistent squad player to one of the first names on the team-sheet. Dropping him now — in such an important match — would be especially harsh.
Will Pogba and Matić be overrun in a two-man midfield? How would the United attack cope without the in-form Lingard? Those are the tough questions facing José Mourinho. A possible compromise would be to move Lingard deeper into midfield. It’s certainly not his best position, but would keep him in the lineup.
Like his Manchester United counterpart, Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino named an understrength side in the FA Cup last weekend. But his squad players failed to take advantage of the opportunity — drawing 1-1 with Newport County — and now face a replay.
The Argentinian manager was circumspect after the disappointing draw: “In this type of game if you don’t fight and are not motivated to play well, it’s so easy to struggle. In the last 30 minutes we played well, created chances, and deserved a draw. It was important not to lose and now we move on and prepare for the game against Manchester United.”
When United last faced Tottenham back in October, Spurs were in third place and looked ready to challenge for the Premier League title. That 1-0 loss at Old Trafford, though, started an up-and-down run for the club that now leaves them fighting to get back into the Champions League places.
It’s hardly a crisis — Spurs have only lost once in thirteen matches since the start of December. But they have fallen behind both Chelsea and Liverpool, and results like the 1-1 draw at Southampton on January 21 won’t help them climb the Premier League table.
Preparing for Spurs begins with the immense threat of Harry Kane up front. The 24-year-old forward has scored an incredible 29 goals in all competitions so far this season — including thirteen in his last twelve league matches. No wonder that Spanish papers insist Real Madrid will come for him this summer.
Pochettino will also be glad to welcome back several important players from injury and illness. Center back Toby Alderweireld has been out since November with a hamstring complaint, but recently returned to training and might be ready by Wednesday.
Both Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen missed the last two matches after a flu bug swept through the camp. While those two are expected back for the United match, Danny Rose (knee) and Harry Winks (ankle) remain question marks.
In any case, Wednesday’s trip to Wembley will undoubtedly be Manchester United’s toughest match since the derby. But the players are well-rested, on a great run of form, and buoyed by the arrival of Alexis Sánchez. A draw would be a decent result, but Mourinho’s men are no doubt aiming for much more.