Game to watch – Huddersfield Town vs Manchester United
Now you’re here, we can be brutally honest with each other: this is not a vintage weekend of football. After a glorious midweek in which we giggled and purred in almost equal measures, the FA Cup draw was not kind. Having five games on television is all well and good, but one on Friday and another on Monday means that Sunday only has one televised game. That just won’t do for those of us who wish to gorge on the feast.
Still, there’s no doubting that it means an awful lot to Jose Mourinho. One of the truths of 24-hour media coverage is that a top-six team is either in crisis or on cloud nine, and Manchester United have been plunged into the former. If it all sounds hyperbolic, that’s because it is.
With the League Cup and Premier League gone and Champions League unlikely, the FA Cup is Manchester United’s one realistic hope of winning a trophy this season. We know how much that matters to Mourinho from the way he instructed his players to hold up three fingers in their celebrations of Europa League victory.
Since 2002, Mourinho has only ever suffered three trophyless seasons. This would be his third in the last five years. It adds fuel to the argument that something has changed in him. His reputation is being chipped away.
It is fitting that another seminal moment in United’s season occurs at the John Smith’s Stadium, given that this was where the season started to unravel. On the morning of October 21, United were two points behind Manchester City and had already carved a seven-point gap to fifth place. They have since lost six of their 14 away games in all competitions. The gap to City is 16, the gap to fifth just four.
Manchester United’s home form is sensational, as it nearly always has been in the Premier League era. Their home record under Mourinho in all competitions reads: Played 50, Won 35, Drawn 13, Lost 2. Those two defeats have both come against City. Yet their away form has let them down, not just results but performances too. Liverpool, Chelsea and City all have better records on the road.
That all makes a trip to Huddersfield vitally important. Mourinho needs his team to find some stability in defence, potentially by dropping Chris Smalling, but also some zip in attack. Alexis Sanchez was supposed to be the catalyst for reinvigoration, but so far it has only caused Anthony Martial to be pushed out of position and Paul Pogba to look a little lost.
Player to watch – Olivier Giroud
“I think he’s a great target man,” said Eden Hazard on Monday evening. “He has a lot of defenders around him so we are free to play around him, myself, Pedro and Willian. He’s a good guy, a good target man and he can score a lot of goals.”
Giroud must be pinching himself. He has gone from the second-choice (or third, had he stayed) centre-forward for the team placed sixth in the Premier League to starting Premier League games for the team in fourth and one who faces Barcelona this week in the Champions League.
Alvaro Morata is still Chelsea’s first-choice striker, but even that notion is being diluted by the week. Morata has suffered back problems over the last few months, part-explaining his largely wretched form, but his finishing has too often been lacking even when afforded clear-cut chances.
Giroud has therefore arrived at the perfect time. Antonio Conte’s treatment of Michy Batshuayi revealed his predilection for a target man striker. If Morata is not firing, then the Italian will have little hesitation in starting Giroud over him. Conte has now entered the ‘let’s all bring in food and wear our own clothes’ stage of his Chelsea exit strategy. There is no lingering loyalty to underperforming stars.
For now, Giroud is the holder of the shirt and possession is nine-tenths of the law. Score against Hull, or even interchange successfully with Willian, Pedro and Hazard, and he really could lead the line against Barcelona on Tuesday evening. It’s a world away from West Ham in the EFL Cup, his last start for Arsenal almost six weeks before he left.
Manager to watch – Carlos Carvalhal
Well he’s going back to Sheffield Wednesday, where the crowd will presumably give him the same look you gave your ex-partner you broke up with at 17 and see six years later looking incredible and with a high-flying job. ‘They were always holding you back,’ you tell yourself as you enter Tescos to buy some Rizlas and a party-size bag of supermarket own-brand Frazzles.
Team to watch – Tottenham
Oh joy, the trophy debate again. It isn’t going away because there isn’t a right answer, merely people with different opinions at different levels of entrenchment coming from different positions of bias. The only problem with this is that social media discourse seems to have eliminated the ‘agree to disagree’ principle, instead persuading its users that they have been sent on a mission to spread the Good Word. And the Bad Word.
Of course Tottenham would love to win a trophy, but failing to do so will only define them in the eyes of the beholder. Speak to some Tottenham supporters and they will say it bothers them. Speak to others and they will say that the moments of wonder provided in the last fortnight alone are enough to sate them. Different people can enjoy the same thing in different ways. Football is not a black-and-white image but a myriad of greys.
Performances such as the one in Turin on Tuesday demonstrate why Mauricio Pochettino believes his strategy to be correct. Prioritising the hardest competitions to win – but also the most rewarding – is high-risk, but therefore also courageous. In the eyes of owners of Europe elite clubs it might be the strategy itself, rather than its success, that is most attractive about Pochettino. He is constantly aiming higher.
In fact, Pochettino has hardly sacrificed any competition. Selections for the FA Cup have been stronger than expected, particularly given that Tottenham have faced two League Two clubs and now travel to League One Rochdale. He knows perfectly well that Spurs have the capability to win the FA Cup. But he also knows that it would be foolish to jeopardise the Premier League and Champions League in favour of it. That isn’t disrespectful, it’s logical.
With genuine squad depth now apparent at Tottenham, Pochettino is most likely to opt for a half-and-half solution on a pitch that has been re-laid after a much-publicised spat. In can come Paulo Gazzaniga, Danny Rose, Toby Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, Juan Foyth, Heung-Min Son, Moussa Sissoko, Victor Wanyama, Harry Winks, Lucas Moura and Fernando Llorente. And that’s a whole new XI from the one that started in Italy. It’s hardly weak.
One-on-one battle to watch – Jose Mourinho vs Paul Pogba
We have to remember that every leak comes for a reason. Given the source of this one, it is pretty clear that it has come from Mourinho himself. He wants it to be known that Pogba is not happy with his role in the team since Sanchez arrived.
Perhaps Mourinho has done this to show Pogba that he will not be messed with. Maybe he is hoping Manchester United fans side with Sanchez. Or, as is most likely, this is a message to United’s board that they need to buy him another central midfielder so that he can play with a 4-3-3 formation and keep their most valuable asset happy. With Mourinho, there is always a strategy.
Firstly, Pogba is right. At Juventus he flourished on the left of a midfield three, so spending £90m on a midfielder and then playing him out of position would seem particularly wanton. Pick him there again and he might flourish. In fact, he already has at United.
Unfortunately, that leaves Mourinho with three problems. The first is that he is not a manager who enjoys over-committing players forward, and a left side of Luke Shaw/Ashley Young, Pogba and Sanchez has the potential to be exploited by the counter-attack. Secondly, it would mean picking Ander Herrera on the right of the midfield three – a player that Mourinho doesn’t particularly care for in a position that doesn’t really fit him.
Finally, playing with a regulation 4-3-3 would surely necessitate dropping Jesse Lingard, who has emerged as one of Manchester United’s better players this season,. With Marcus Rashford already struggling for starts, keeping a link from the academy in the first team is important for Mourinho to fuel his counter to the argument that he prefers ready-made stars.
Whatever Mourinho’s solution, Pogba must improve. He was excellent at the start of the season, but has not yet moved out of second gear since his injury. He was clearly hampered by a knock last week, but being outclassed by Mo Diame is not a strong look for a superstar footballer. Both he and his manager need a change of mood.
Football League game to watch – Norwich City vs Ipswich Town
Local derbies are supposed to be nip and tuck, with form going out of the window and any other cliche you can think to muster welcomed on board. Yet East Anglia has been a distinct shade of yellow in recent years. Of the last nine derbies between Norwich and Ipswich, the former has won six and drawn three. It is a record that understandably leads to much crowing.
Norwich have enjoyed and endured a strange season. They won one of their five league games to sit in the relegation zone, promptly went on an eight-match unbeaten run to climb to sixth, then took five points out of their next 30 available to fall to 16th and have since won five and drawn two of their last eight games. No sooner have Daniel Farke’s side found a rhythm that it has been upset. No sooner have they neared trouble than begun steering away.
If Norwich are the rollercoaster, Ipswich are the tractor plodding on through East Anglia’s country lanes. They started the season in tremendous form but that quickly fell away. Ipswich have sat between eighth and 12th since the end of September, and look set for another season of Championship obscurity. No club has been at this same level for as long. Only the dry humour of Mick McCarthy, a man who is proudly unmoved by jeers or cheers, provides interest to the outsider.
Still, is there any better way to wake a club up out of its slumber than a win at its closest, and bitterest, rivals. If your team is insistent on treading water, the least it can do is provide moments that supporters can cherish amidst the grey.
European game to watch – Borussia Monchengladbach vs Borussia Dortmund
Not content with being cheap to watch from terraces where you can drink beer and jump around like a madman, the Bundesliga is also a lot of fun this season. Bayern Munich may be romping away with the league, but below them is a mighty fight for the European spots.
Currently eight points separate RB Leipzig in second and Hertha Berlin in 11th. Three of those ten teams will qualify for the Champions League, while two more will make the Europa League. With 12 rounds of matches remaining, every week brings an intra-pack fixture.
This week it’s the Borussen derby between Monchengladbach and Dortmund, who have responded well following the departure of Thomas Tuchel and arrival of Peter Stoger. Having won one and drawn two of eight games, Dortmund have won three and drawn two since to move up to third and a point behind Leipzig. Monchengladbach are on a rotten run, fourth as recently as December 9 but now down in tenth after winning two of their last nine before and after the winter break.
If you’re feeling patriotic, this is also a cracking fixture to watch. We could see Jadon Sancho vs Reece Oxford, which initial searches tell me would be the first clash of Englishmen in a top five European league since David Beckham vs Joey Barton in February 2013.
Writer to watch (him have a weekend off and do nothing with it) – Daniel Storey