Jose Mourinho and Man United season on knife edge ahead of FA Cup
W2W4 previews the key storylines to look out for ahead of the weekend action. It’s a big period for Manchester United, while all eyes will be on the Rochdale pitch this Sunday …
Will history be repeated at Huddersfield?
Manchester United may have cruised to a 2-0 victory over Huddersfield at Old Trafford earlier this month, but Saturday’s FA Cup tie brings them back to the scene of the crime — the day Manchester City began to run away with the Premier League title.
A 2-1 defeat at the John Smith’s Stadium in October ended United’s unbeaten start to the season and opened up a five-point gap at the top of the table. Jose Mourinho’s side had kept seven clean sheets in eight matches before facing the Terriers, but suddenly they looked vulnerable. “The attitude was really poor. When you lose because of attitude that is really bad,” said Mourinho afterwards. “It was a surprise but it is reality. I don’t even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor.”
With City’s lead over their rivals now at 16 points with 11 matches of the league campaign remaining, Mourinho must question the role his own attitude has played in a frustrating season. United were flying before they travelled to Liverpool on the weekend before the Huddersfield game, hitting four goals on four occasions in the preceding five fixtures. But the deference shown to Jurgen Klopp’s side put the brakes on their promising start. Mourinho parked the bus at Anfield as United managed just 38 percent of possession and a single shot on target. Perhaps the players read his instructions as a lack of confidence in their ability to control matches through attacking football. In the following 27 fixtures, they have scored four goals only three times.
Even Alexis Sanchez’s arrival has done little to lift United’s inhibitions. The Chilean could only watch as Tottenham surged through the midfield to claim a 2-0 victory at Wembley on Jan. 31, while Mourinho explained last week’s defeat to Newcastle by suggesting “luck” favoured Rafa Benitez’s side. It wasn’t luck that withdrew Paul Pogba with half an hour remaining, as reports emerge that the midfielder “regrets” returning to Old Trafford in an £89.3 million deal in 2016. As the debate over his best position rumbles on — with the TV cameras spotting a prolonged and animated discussion between Mourinho and Pogba mid-game against Spurs — the manager must quickly resolve a situation that could threaten his own long-term future at the club.
All of this leaves United in something of a self-inflicted predicament ahead of the Huddersfield test, a Champions League trip to Sevilla, and a return to Premier League action at home to Chelsea. The FA Cup remains their best chance of claiming silverware and salvaging success from a season that is increasingly threatening to unravel. Mourinho will hope his players show the right attitude on this occasion.
Carvalhal’s Sheffield Wednesday return
The news that Carlos Carvalhal had left the club by mutual consent following at 2-1 home defeat to Middlesbrough in December was greeted with little more than a shrug by many Sheffield Wednesday supporters. Despite twice leading the Owls to the Championship playoffs, the Portuguese manager had struggled to maintain that momentum in the current campaign, leaving Wednesday closer to the relegation zone than the top six.
One wonders if the sense of regret has been felt more keenly over the following weeks. While Wednesday still languish in the bottom half, Swansea have been revitalised by Carvalhal’s leadership. The Swans have won six and lost just one of his 11 matches in charge, beating Liverpool and Arsenal to climb out of the bottom three. They were five points adrift of safety when Carvalhal was appointed in December.
It will be interesting to see what sort of reception the Swansea boss is given on his return to Hillsborough in Saturday’s FA Cup tie. A timely and impressive 2-0 win over Derby on Tuesday handed Wednesday a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the meeting with their former manager, while Swansea have put themselves in a position where the FA Cup should no longer be considered a hindrance to their survival fight. Throw Carvalhal’s eccentric behaviour into the mix, and there could be plenty to watch for in this clash.
Can Sheffield United cause a shock?
It was all going so well for Sheffield United earlier in the season as they looked on course to challenge for back-to-back promotions and a place in the Premier League. A run of two wins in 11 matches over winter derailed those ambitions, however, and they now linger just outside the play-offs.
Chris Wilder’s side played some of the best football in the second tier at the start of the season and, while their form has tailed off, a 2-1 victory over Yorkshire rivals Leeds last week suggested they can still rise to the big occasions. They will need to do exactly that when they travel to Leicester City on Friday. Talented England youngster David Brooks is a player to keep an eye on if he is afforded the chance to start.
A debut for Brighton’s Locadia
Chris Hughton has confirmed that Brighton’s record-signing Jurgen Locadia is fit to make his debut against Coventry on Saturday after arriving with a hamstring injury from PSV Eindhoven in January.
The 24-year-old scored nine goals in 15 games in the Eredivisie this season and offers a different dynamic to a Brighton attack that has mustered just 22 goals in 27 Premier League games this term. Hughton says there is no pressure on Locadia, but privately he will be desperate for the new arrival to make an instant impact in the FA Cup.
The Rochdale pitch
Rochdale have rolled out the red carpet for the visit of Tottenham on Sunday, spending £500,000 to relay the Spotland pitch. The previous turf had to be covered in sand and caused two postponements recently, with Rochdale rooted to the foot of League One and racking up five games in hand over their relegation rivals.
With no matches played on the new pitch before the Spurs clash, both clubs will hope that it survives its first test. Mauricio Pochettino’s side struggled with the surface in their 1-1 draw at Newport County in the previous round and will likely look to rest players following their exhausting efforts against Juventus in midweek. This tie should prove to be a routine victory, but the pitch adds an extra layer of intrigue.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for EuSportFeeds and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger