Neil Humphreys: Month of reckoning for Man United
MAN UNITED v STOKE
(Tomorrow, 3.35am, SingTel mio TV Ch 103 & StarHub TV Ch 208)
On the back of a mini-unbeaten run, Manchester United have a jingle in their step as the Christmas period creeps closer.
There is talk of corners being turned and new coaching templates taking root, but it's important not to get carried away.
The same was said this time last season. Supporters must be gripped by a sense of deja vu.
The Red Devils headed into their first December game of 2013 bolstered by a six-game unbeaten run.
They hosted David Moyes' old club Everton. The manager knew every nuance, quirk and oddity about those sticky Toffees.
But the men from Merseyside went to Old Trafford and pinched a 1-0 victory.
With the erratic Moyes at the helm, the roller-coaster kept on riding through December with more dark days and false dawns.
The violent ride left United followers feeling queasy.
Louis van Gaal is not handicapped by his predecessor's inferiority complex, but he does find himself in the glare of United's naturally sunny disposition.
Thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson, United are conditioned to look on the bright side of life more often than Monty Python. Domestic dynasties tend to do that to the inflated psyche.
Three wins on the spin have elevated expectations once more. A home game against Stoke City tomorrow morning (Singapore time) is considered another opportunity to take a firmer grip on the top four.
United's victory against Hull was certainly convincing and Ashley Young has already spoken of chasing titles with all the enthusiasm of a tongue-wagging dog chasing cars.
But a degree of caution should be advised. Context is everything.
In United's last three games, Hull were dreadful, the Gunners were gutless and Crystal Palace were unlucky not to pinch a point at Old Trafford.
And the Potters are about as pedestrian as it gets before Christmas.
Southampton, Liverpool, Newcastle and Tottenham are all in contention for European qualification and all face United before the champagne corks are popped on New Year's Eve.
Of course, van Gaal's most obvious coaching strength is not being Moyes, a man who overcompensated for his insecurities by undermining his players.
Van Gaal does the opposite. He blows them up like helium balloons and sets them free against unsuspecting opponents.
The sensitive Wayne Rooney needed to be reassured of his greatness. The pragmatic Robin van Persie required a rocket to fire his dying embers.
Both delivered against Hull.
But it's still a case of different strokes from dwindling folks.
Van Gaal is running out of egos to massage. His powers of improvisation are second to none, but even his large head must be scraping against the ceiling of his talent.
The endlessly revolving door in United's treatment room forced the Dutchman to send out Young at left back in a puzzling 4-2-2-2 formation against Hull that was either inspired or insane.
More confusingly, van Persie played behind Rooney and Angel di Maria, a humbling role for the Dutch striker that was altered only when the Argentinian hobbled off with a hamstring pull.
Van Gaal got away with his latest reshuffle against timid opposition, but the need to make a new silk purse of a sow's ear every week must be trying his patience.
But rotate he will. He has no choice.
Rooney's knee problem and di Maria's hamstring do not appear to be major concerns, but they are the latest names added to a long injury list. Selection consistency is inconceivable right now.
Against Hull, United's back four was again a mixed bag of fledgling partnerships, another untried combination that at least enjoyed a comfortable outing against toothless Tigers.
Southampton, Liverpool, Newcastle and Tottenham should not be so accommodating, all acutely aware of the tender spots where United bruise easily, namely in the gaps between centre back and fullback and either side of Michael Carrick.
On the plus side, Radamel Falcao got a 20-minute run out and van Persie recalibrated his sights.
But the Colombian signing still feels like a lucrative retirement scheme and - as a 31-year-old injury-prone striker - van Persie's best days cannot be ahead of him.
United's upturn in fortunes is a cause for optimism, but it must be tempered by pragmatism. Recent history does not allow for hubris.
The Red Devils travelled this road at the same time last season.
They remember every pothole. They've been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. Now is the time to follow the advice of that popular T-shirt.
Keep calm and carry on.
- Burnley v Newcastle
- Leicester v Liverpool
- Man United v Stoke
- Swansea v QPR
- Crystal Palace v Aston Villa
- West Brom v West Ham
- Arsenal v Southampton
- Chelsea v Tottenham
- Everton v Hull
- Sunderland v Man City
DEVILS’ DICEY DECEMBER
v Stoke (H)
- Dec 8
v Southampton (A)
- Dec 14
v Liverpool (H)
- Dec 20
v Aston Villa (A)
- Dec 26
v Newcastle (H)
- Dec 28
v Tottenham (A)
- Jan 1
v Stoke (A)
No joy for van Gaal during festive period
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal admitted that he is dreading the Christmas period as his team continue their bid for a Champions League place against lowly Stoke City at Old Trafford tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
The visit of Mark Hughes' team marks the beginning of a month in which United play seven league fixtures and, while his team have no interest in European or League Cup football, van Gaal (below) insists such a schedule is too demanding.
"I'm not happy because I do not agree with that but I cannot change that," said the former Holland coach.
"I don't think it's good for the football players that they play within two days another match. In December, it shall be like that.
WELCOME TO EPL
"We also have families. I also have a wife and kids and grandchildren and I cannot see them this Christmas.
"But, I want to work in the Premier League, I have to adapt and I shall adapt."
Van Gaal's concerns have been heightened by his team's alarming injury record with Angel di Maria and Wayne Rooney becoming the 41st and 42nd United first-team players respectively to sustain injuries this season, during last Saturday's 3-0 win over Hull.
The club's British record £59.7million ($122m) signing was forced off early in the win over Hull. United are still to learn the full extent of the problem, but di Maria will definitely miss the visit of the Potters.
Captain Rooney, though, is expected to shake off a bang to the knee, while fellow striker Radamel Falcao could be pushing for a start after coming off the bench against Hull.
The debilitating injury record is one reason why the United manager has said that the lack of fixtures in other competitions does not give his side any advantage over their rivals near the top of the league table.
"No, I don't think so," van Gaal said. "It depends on the injuries and the other clubs are used to playing in the Champions League.
"You cannot say Chelsea are not used to playing in the Champions League, the Premier League, the League Cup and the FA Cup. They are used to that and they have all those selections for that.
"When you are challenged during the whole season, you become better and we have to train to become better."
Meanwhile, former United striker Hughes has an injury headache in midfield, with both Steve Sidwell and Glenn Whelan set to miss the trip to Old Trafford.
The pair suffered injuries during last Saturday's 1-0 loss at Liverpool.
Sidwell sustained a knee problem after a Rickie Lambert challenge, while replacement Whelan, who just came back from a broken leg, failed to re-emerge from the tunnel in the second half after pulling his calf. - AFP.