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Preview: Manchester United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

The Reds can’t afford to lose this one

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - The Emirates FA Cup Semi Final

It’s crisis time again at Old Trafford. If Manchester United’s opening day win over Leicester City quieted the summer-long furor of impending meltdown, Sunday’s 3-2 loss at Brighton brought it all back with a vengeance.

José Mourinho and his players have been pummeled all week for their lackluster performance on the south coast, leaving them desperate for a chance to put things right on Monday against Tottenham Hotspur.

United fans initially planned to fly a banner over Old Trafford during the match to call for chief executive Ed Woodward’s dismissal, but that plan has been pushed back to next weekend because of Monday’s late kickoff. Their anger mostly stems from the club’s bizarre summer transfer window, which opened with such promise only to close with a whimper.

The Reds looked set to make a statement by nabbing prized youngster Diogo Dalot from Porto and then out-dueling rival City for Fred before the World Cup even began. With practically the entire summer still to go, most supporters understandably expected a few more big names. In the end, all we got was backup goalkeeper Lee Grant.

Whether Woodward truly vetoed players off Mourinho’s wishlist or not, the fans are fed up. They haven't gone this route — calling for someone’s head via plane banner — since the final days of David Moyes. Perhaps Mourinho should feel heartened that his name isn’t on the banner ... yet.

But fortunes can change in an instant in football and Manchester United are just one big win away from calmer waters. To do that, though, the club needs a much improved performance from the back line.

Allowing three goals to Brighton is embarrassing. Sorry, there’s just no way around that.

The Lindelof-Bailly pairing in central defense hit the skids at the Amex Arena, with each making a crucial mistake that directly led to a goal. Either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones could be thrown into the mix if United shift to a back three on Monday to add a little more stability.

Another possibility is the season debut of Antonio Valencia on the right. Valencia has been nursing a calf injury since early on the U.S. preseason tour, but returned to training late last week and has a chance to jump back into the starting eleven. After shipping four goals in the opening two matches, United need all the defensive help they can get.

Nemanja Matić might also be ready for a return. Back in training after post-World Cup abdominal surgery, Matić would be another boost to United’s beleaguered defense. Andreas Pereira ably deputized in the #6 role, but Mourinho would surely prefer to play a trusted veteran against the potent Spurs attack.

Up front, there’s been little word on the health of Alexis Sánchez after his surprise absence at Brighton. Alexis hasn’t always shown top form in a red shirt, but neither has Anthony Martial, his likely replacement.

After splitting their league meetings last season, United got the last laugh by shocking Spurs at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. Leading up to the match, few gave Mourinho’s men much of a chance, but United played one of their best games of the season and came away with the 2-1 victory.

On Monday, let’s hope for another one just like that.

Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino’s side is in make-it-or-break-it mode this season. The North London club is no longer the plucky underdog aiming to shove its way into the Champions League picture. Spurs now boast world-class talent across the pitch and in the dugout. In other words, it’s time to win something.

But if Pochettino and his players are feeling the heat to finally win a trophy, they’re not showing it. Spurs have beaten Newcastle and Fulham in the early going and look as dangerous as ever. They’re back to the 3-5-2, pressing when needed, and quickly getting the ball forward to their ferocious attack.

Whoever Mourinho selects in defense will have their hands full dealing with the likes of Harry Kane, Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

And there’s even more bad news. Habitual slow-starter Kane got off the mark early this season with a goal last weekend against Fulham. Incredibly, that’s his first-ever Premier League goal in August and could herald another big season from the 25-year-old forward.

It’s hard to believe that any club could have its back up against the wall after only two matches, but such is life for Manchester United. José Mourinho has made a career out of circling the wagons and instilling an “us against the world” mentality in his squad. He’ll need to do just that on Monday against a very talented Spurs side.

Hopefully, it works. If Manchester United lose this one, things might get ugly.