Fresh off a warm-weather training camp in Dubai, Manchester United travel to London for a tough match with Tottenham Hotspur. The Reds enter Wembley on a high after five straight wins to kick off the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era. Skeptics, though, point to the rather lackluster opposition during this stretch. No doubt Spurs pose the sternest test yet for United’s caretaker manager.
Sunday promises to be fascinating both on and off the pitch. From the moment Manchester United changed managers last month, speculation zeroed in on Mauricio Pochettino as the club’s top choice for the permanent position. Solskjaer’s perfect start — and his almost folk-hero status among United supporters — makes him a legit candidate, but most still expect Ed Woodward to pursue the Spurs boss come season’s end.
Last week, Solskjaer publicly confirmed what everyone already knew — he wants the Old Trafford post full-time. While the result of this weekend’s match probably won’t weigh too heavily into Woodward’s decision, it’s also the best chance Ole’s got to make a head-to-head statement against his professional rival. A win at Wembley only strengthens his case that he’s the best man for the job.
Pochettino’s remarks before Tottenham’s midweek Carabao Cup tie added even more fuel to the fire. In the space of a few minutes, Pochettino admitted his hope to stay at the North London club for twenty years, but also pointed out that Spurs must change in order to break their trophy drought. Fans will interpret his words in different ways, but he certainly didn’t slam the door shut on moving to a bigger club.
If Pochettino’s comments set tongues wagging all over the football world, they did nothing to disrupt his players. Spurs defeated Chelsea 1-0 in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final on Tuesday, moving one step closer to a date with Manchester City in the final.
Manchester United, on the other hand, took advantage of the open week to train in sunny Dubai. Since Solskjaer took over during the hectic Christmas period, he hasn’t had much time to actually train with his new players. Multiple games each week meant the players spent more time recovering than working on tactics and fitness with their new boss.
So, despite the idyllic conditions, this was no vacation for the United squad. Solskjaer, Mike Phelan (in shorts!), and the rest of the coaching staff worked the players hard — building up fitness for the difficult matches ahead and installing a deeper tactical system. It’s as close to a second preseason as any caretaker manager will get.
Last time out, United defeated Reading 2-0 in a somewhat subdued FA Cup tie. Solskjaer made nine changes to his side, giving the squad players a chance to stake a claim for more playing time. Unfortunately, most struggled to match the pace set by the resting Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, and other regulars in recent weeks. Not sure anyone forced their way into the starting eleven for the Spurs match.
“We know that if that performance is repeated at Wembley against Spurs, we are not going to come back with a clean sheet and any points,” Solskjaer said afterwards.
United’s two biggest injury concerns — Pogba and Alexis Sánchez — appear well on the mend. Pogba picked up a knock against Newcastle, probably on Jonjo Shelvey’s horror tackle that should have resulted in a red card. He missed the FA Cup match last weekend and stayed behind in Manchester for additional treatment, but joined his teammates in Dubai midway through the week. He should be fine for Sunday.
Alexis, meanwhile, appeared to re-aggravate his hamstring injury against Reading. “He was feeling his hamstring towards the end,” Solskjaer explained. “I think he will be okay. He was tired and hopefully it is not a bad reaction. We will see once we get closer to next week.” Thankfully, Alexis trained all week in Dubai and looks no worse for the wear.
Tottenham, too, are getting healthy at the perfect time. Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele are both back in training, while Erik Lamela came off the bench against Chelsea for his first action since before Christmas.
Still, United should have a sizable advantage in terms of rest and fitness. While the Reds soaked up the sun in Dubai, the Spurs first team faced 90 tough minutes against Chelsea. Pochettino’s side ground out a 1-0 result, but Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Son Heung-min, Toby Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, and the rest all worked hard in a very physical contest.
Fun fact: Tottenham Hotspur have no draws in the Premier League this season. Don’t count on a bore 0-0 in this one.
Back in August, Spurs shellacked United at Old Trafford in what was a most unusual game. United had plenty of early chances, wasted all of them, and then Spurs ruthlessly buried their opportunities in the second half. The Reds outshot their visitors 23-9, but lost 3-0.
With Spurs in third — just on the outskirts of the Liverpool-City title race — this weekend’s match will reveal a lot about United’s prospects for the rest of the season. “Spurs at Wembley is a proper test,” Solskjaer said. “That game will give me more of a reference as to where we are against the top boys.”
“We’re not happy talking about sixth, fifth, or fourth place,” he continued. “In a year or two, the club needs to move on and up the table.”