Saturday’s trip to Wembley is a big one for Manchester United. Only a win over Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final will keep the club’s dream of silverware alive.
Hopefully this trip to the national stadium gets off to a better start than the last one. Back in January, Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen strolled through a caught-off-guard United defense to score the opener after just eleven seconds.
The first goal of a match always makes a big difference, but Eriksen’s stunner really threw the Reds for a loop. The presumed game-plan was for United to sit back and attack the openings left when Spurs ventured forward. Generally speaking, that’s Jose Mourinho’s preferred tactical approach for any important game.
But, when the opposition gets the jump on you with a goal in the first minute, that plan goes right out the window. Eriksen (and the negligent defense) put United on the back foot immediately and forced the visitors to chase the game for almost ninety minutes.
Any hope for a recovery ended with a Phil Jones own goal in the 28th minute. All in all, it was a dreadful day at the office for Manchester United.
That loss to Spurs reignited the debate on United’s (and the manager’s) effectiveness against other top teams. Whether that complaint rang true at the time, the Reds summarily dispelled those concerns over the past two months with wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City. In fact, United now seem to play with better consistency and focus in bigger matches.
Case in point — the club’s shock home loss to West Brom and an up-and-down performance at the Vitality Stadium. On Wednesday, a heavily-rotated Reds side made tough work of mid-table Bournemouth, but ultimately came away with a 2-0 victory.
At times, the United squad looked like they had barely played together before. Which, to be fair, they probably hadn't. Mourinho made seven changes to his starting lineup with the FA Cup semi-final coming just three days later.
And, despite a choppy performance, the manager seemed pleased in his post-match comments to the club website: “I would say that every player on the pitch was positive and made themselves available for Saturday.”
Even with Mourinho’s kind words, though, most of the rested first-teamers should be restored to the starting eleven this weekend. Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Nemanja Matic, Ashley Young, and Antonio Valencia are all certainties to start.
The biggest question might be at goalkeeper ... which is not something said very often during David De Gea’s amazing tenure in Manchester. So far, Mourinho has trusted Sergio Romero to deputize for DDG in this competition, but Romero picked up a knee injury last month and might not be fit. And, even if he proves himself healthy, will the manager select him for such a crucial match?
Spurs will be — by far — the toughest opponent that United has faced in this FA Cup run. The Reds received a very favorable draw up to this point, facing clubs from League 2, the Championship, and two Premier League also-rans.
While United’s week hasn’t been perfect, Spurs enter this match on an even worse note. Mauricio Pochettino’s side got torn apart by Manchester City at the weekend, before meekly drawing with Brighton on Tuesday night.
Pochettino named a surprisingly strong squad at Brighton — especially considering they held a seven point lead on Chelsea for fourth place. In Tottenham’s attack, Harry Kane played 85 minutes (and scored their lone goal) and Eriksen the full 90.
Lucas Moura, a £23 million January addition from PSG, appears to have finally forced his way into the manager’s plans after a slow start in England. Moura started in midweek and has also played in the club’s last three FA Cup matches.
Another Spurs player looking for a way back into Pochettino’s good graces is Toby Alderweireld. Long thought to be one of the Premier League’s top defenders, the 29-year-old center back found himself out of favor after suffering an injury in October. Alderweireld (who has been linked with a summer move to Manchester United) made his first league start in six months on Tuesday.
Will his manager trust the well-rested Alderweireld to play twice in one week? If not, Davinson Sanchez — a player Mourinho picked on in last season’s Europa League final — will probably take his place.
For all of the good work that Pochettino has done at Spurs, he remains trophy-less as a manager. A cup win, even if just the FA, would cement the Argentinian as one of the world’s top bosses.
The 2017/18 FA Cup will go a long way towards determining the success of Jose Mourinho’s second season at the Manchester United helm. The sides split their two meetings in the Premier League this season, so Saturday becomes a de facto rubber match. But, for both clubs, a date in next month’s final means a whole lot more than bragging rights.