Louis van Gaal
It seemed like Van Gaal had ridden the storm over Christmas and slightly more encouraging performances against Chelsea and Swansea had secured him a reprieve. But another abject showing against third-tier Sheffield United and the squandering of points at Newcastle has shifted the spotlight firmly back in the Dutchman’s direction ahead of United’s visit to Anfield on Sunday.
The 3-3 draw on Tyneside left United languishing in sixth, while every team down to Liverpool in ninth could move level on points with the Red Devils this weekend if Van Gaal suffers his first defeat to the Merseysiders.
The FA Cup snoozefest last weekend prompted ‘a significant shift in stance from Old Trafford’s powerbrokers’ according to the Daily Star – a report published before United blew it at Newcastle. Since then, The Times has claimed that the Anfield clash could be significant for Van Gaal’s prospects of seeing out his contract – or even the week.
United were more expansive against relegation-haunted Newcastle, but Van Gaal admitted that was in no small part due to their hosts’ positive approach, not necessarily anything he had tweaked. And they still conceded three times to one of the division’s worst teams – a side who had failed to find the net in the previous 454 minutes. Van Gaal has failed to find a balance between attack and defence in 18 months at Old Trafford so it is hard to imagine much will change by the time United rock up at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp seems to be a fan of his current No.1, certainly more than many of those on the Kop, in front of which Mignolet conceded another pair of preventable goals against Arsenal.
Klopp has shown his ruthless side towards No.2 Adam Bogdan after the former Bolton stopper ballsed up a couple of corners in his last two appearances in Mignolet’s place. The manager evidently has greater reserves of patience for the Belgian, but it is surely not limitless.
After a mistake in the home draw with West Brom last month, Klopp said: “I said to Mignolet at half time, if someone says its his fault, tell them it’s not true, it’s mine. I want a GK who tries to get the ball.”
Not an unreasonable demand of a goalkeeper, that. Klopp, though, doesn’t have time to wait while Mignolet learns a skill that as a Premier League goalkeeper, he should already possess.
There may be a new deal on the table but any more dropped b*llocks – especially against Manchester United – might force Klopp to reassess his transfer priorities this month.
Steve McClaren said the draw with Manchester United felt like a win, such was the manner in which it was achieved. But the Magpies still finished the midweek programme worse off thanks to victories for Villa and Sunderland.
Still, the Toon Army at least were given something to be positive about by full-time against United. For the first 40 minutes, St James’ Park was an eerie place to be. No discontent – a #SportsDirectShame protest banner aside – no anger, just a weary acceptance of their fate. At least by the end, McClaren could take to the centre circle to the sound of applause rather than grumbles, even if the excitement seemed to affect his memory when he spoke to the press.
“We said before the game – night game, Manchester United, fifty two thousand people, it’s on TV – let’s at the end of the night show what we are all about here at Newcastle. How from the beginning of the season we have shown that character, attitude and quality.
“They have shown everything tonight, everything.”
The obvious flaw in that statement is that if it were true, then Newcastle would not be languishing in 18th place in the table. But McClaren has tried almost every approach with his players so far this season and found that they respond better to carrot than stick.
The fans are not quite as fragile and know bulls*** when they hear it. But they will tolerate the soundbites if it helps the players build on the positives from Tuesday from the first whistle against fifth-placed West Ham. The Hammers are on a fine run of form – the victory at Bournemouth was the fourth on the bounce – so taking points from Slaven Bilic’s side will arguably be a tougher task than they faced in midweek.
The Swans are on the slide and sit perilously close to the drop zone, just one point ahead of 18th-placed Sunderland, who left the Liberty Stadium with three points on Wednesday. The signs are not good.
The club bungled the succession of Garry Monk and everyone, especially the playing squad, is well aware that Alan Curtis was not even close to first choice. Curtis’s first two games as a manager could hardly have gone worse: a 3-2 defeat at Oxford in the FA Cup before losing 4-2 to their relegation rivals from Wearside. If you really wanted to dig for positives, at least Gylfi Sigurdsson, Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis have remembered their way to goal over recent weeks. But nine goals conceded in three games is a huge concern.
The Swans face a Watford side heading to south Wales on the back of three Premier League defeats. The Hornets, though, were unlucky to lose late to Tottenham and Manchester City, though Quique Sanchez Flores will be a little more concerned at their off-colour performance at Southampton on Wednesday, during which they failed to find the net after 11 successive matches on the scoresheet.
‘The Big Man Is Back!’ proclaimed the Mail on Sunday a fortnight ago after his winning goal against Swansea. Since then, the Manchester United captain has scored the winning penalty against Sheffield United and two more at Newcastle in what was widely acknowledged as his best display of the season.
Rooney’s performances have certainly improved since he was benched at Stoke but it is hard to imagine them getting any worse. We’ll reserve judgement for now, especially with Anfield waiting to welcome the Scouser.
As an Evertonian in a Manchester United shirt, Rooney should relish facing Liverpool. But the striker has notched only five goals in 22 appearances against the Reds, making them the opponents he struggles most against. Reversing that trend at Anfield on Sunday would certainly strengthen claims that he can rediscover something close to his best form, but there would still remain a long road ahead for Rooney to ever even see that point on the horizon.
Remi Garde’s side were lucky to come up against a Palace side on the slide on Tuesday night. Regardless, the Villans must build on their first win since opening day if they are to have a hope of escaping relegation.
Despite Palace’s poor form, it was still a surprise to see Garde engineer a victory following the week that preceded it. The talk before kick-off was of preparing for the Championship with many, their own supporters included, already writing off the squad before Garde was given chance to add to it. The tensions between players and fans boiled over at Wycombe last week and the French boss deserves credit for refocusing his players for Palace. Perhaps all is not lost just yet?
The challenge Villa face on Saturday will be very different. In contrast to shot-shy Palace, Leicester are flying again, having drawn level on points with Arsenal at the top of the table. The Foxes have kept three consecutive clean sheets to compensate for three goalless outings prior to the late win at Tottenham.
Palace have triumphed only once since Alan Pardew was dancing on pub tables with Eagles fans just over a month ago. Tuesday’s defeat at rock-bottom Villa was the fourth consecutive Premier League game in which his side have failed to win or even find the net and Pardew perhaps knows his players are falling off the pace.
“I said to the players, there are not many times I can turn round and say we just couldn’t get going,” he said after handing Villa their first win since opening day.
Similar lethargy at Manchester City on Saturday will surely be more sternly punished. Palace have kept only two clean sheets in their last 16 on the road in the Premier League so Pardew will need his attacking players to rediscover some energy and form if they have a hope at the Etihad. At Villa Park, they registered only one shot on target and failed to win a corner. It cannot be a coincidence that the Eagles have drawn blanks ever since Yannick Bolasie sustained a hip injury at Stoke. The winger will be absent again at City so Pardew has to find another route to goal.
“What a stadium. If one day in my life I will cry, it will be the day I play here. I love Chelsea.”
So said Lukaku, aged 16, in 2009 when he made a school trip to Stamford Bridge but much has changed since then. The Belgian striker feels he never got a fair crack during his time in west London – though three years were spent farmed out at West Brom and Everton.
The Blues have been left to rue the sale of Lukaku in 2014, with Jose Mourinho reportedly grilled over the move by the club’s hierarchy before they sacked him. But the striker will remain desperate to prove himself again on his former favourite stage on Saturday as 14th host 11th.
Handy, that, for Roberto Martinez, because it doesn’t bear thinking about where Everton would be without Lukaku’s 15 Premier League goals this season. Even with the division’s joint-top scorer, the Toffees still languish in the bottom half of the table, despite the manager regularly talking up the potential of his under-performing squad.
Eddie Howe’s side are winless in four Premier League games, having scored only one goal during that run. The manager has attempted to remedy that drought by spending £16million on strikers Benik Afobe and Lewis Grabban, despite his discomfort at spending such large amounts of his club’s money.
With one Premier League goal between them, you could forgive Howe for feeling uneasy at the sums involved and the boss needs the pair to hit the ground running if the Cherries are to avoid being dragged into a relegation scrap.
Bournemouth have done their business early this month with the next three matches in mind. Norwich’s visit precedes clashes with Sunderland and Crystal Palace – all winnable games for the Cherries and a great opportunity to pull themselves out of their slump.