Neil Humphreys: Man United must get Matic fit for Arsenal, City games
United must get Serbian midfielder fit for Arsenal, City games
Nemanja Matic has the muscular bulk and hard stare of an Arnold Schwarzenegger character in an '80s action movie.
The Serb plays through pain. He saves the bleeding and bleating for the dressing room.
So when he signalled to the Manchester United bench that he had to come off, Jose Mourinho knew it was serious. Matic isn't one for play-acting.
If he's really down, then United are just about out.
They were outsiders for the English Premier League title before their entertaining 4-2 win at Watford yesterday (Singapore time). They'll join the also-rans without Matic.
A trip to Arsenal on Sunday morning (Singapore time) is followed by Manchester City's visit to Old Trafford. United could close the gap as an early festive gift for supporters. Or their title race could be run by Christmas.
Mourinho's most successful sides are always built on a wall of impenetrable muscle. But, at United, another brick in the wall has come loose.
Marouane Fellaini missed the Watford game with a knee injury. Matic left the Watford pitch in the 55th minute, clutching his leg.
As Mourinho pointed out, it's muscular. It's Matic. It's major.
Chelsea might have allowed Matic to leave and Fellaini may not top the shopping list of other elite clubs, but they are definitive Mourinho archetypes.
Just as Pep Guardiola cannot pick a side without a couple of Roadrunners beeping along as wing-backs, Mourinho feels incomplete without at least one athletic, sinewy holding midfielder in his line-up.
Ander Herrera chases and harries with the eagerness of a tongue-flapping puppy, but he's a scurrying Yorkshire Terrier compared to Matic's Great Dane (which presumably makes Fellaini something of a frizzy-haired mongrel).
Ashley Young's brace and Jesse Lingard's stunning solo effort on the counter-attack caught the eye, but Watford captured the space once Matic departed.
In Mourinho's mind, Young's ageless energy and Lingard's ingenuity are wonderful qualities, but Matic gives the United manager something he craves more than anything else.
And it was lost the moment Matic limped off.
SHIFT IN MOMENTUM
At that stage, United were three goals to the good and ready to run up a rugby score. The only thing that David de Gea feared catching in goal was frostbite.
But Matic's exit triggered a discreet shift in momentum. Watford's 3-4-3 was finally allowed to make the most of the extra men in midfield.
Mourinho typically favours three centre backs when his opponents opt for the same defensive line-up, always confident that Matic will prevail in a congested midfield.
In recent weeks, Paul Pogba has established a neat, almost old-fashioned, synergy with Matic. The Serb stays. The Frenchman goes. The gatekeeper serves the gifted marauder.
And the goals were spread around as a result. Young, Lingard, Anthony Martial, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Pogba have all featured on the scoresheet in recent weeks.
The goal spread has helped to cover the growing crisis of confidence up front.
Mourinho continues to champion Romelu Lukaku's cause, but betrays his concern when he makes lame, distracting jokes about his striker's need of a new boot deal to end a goal drought.
Lukaku has scored once in his last 11 appearances, which isn't an issue particularly against the likes of Watford and Brighton. But chances will be harder to come by against Arsenal and Man City.
Should Matic miss either match, Mourinho's innate conservation will take hold, forcing him to suffocate the contests and hang on for low-scoring results.
Lukaku simply cannot afford to be so profligate in front of goal. Opportunities will be no different to taxis on a Friday night in Shenton Way. He'll have no idea when the next one will come along.
United's midfield could be at its weakest as Mourinho prepares for his strongest opposition. The improved Gunners and those noisiest of neighbours will relish the prospect of facing a United side without both Matic and Fellaini.
Michael Carrick's on-going absence only worsens the problem, and Phil Jones and Eric Bailly's injuries hardly help. But Matic is key.
In the coming days, the most important United staff will be those treating the midfielder's "muscular" problem.
Missing the Arsenal game could cost United a victory. Missing the City game could cost United a shot at the title.
Right now, the Red Devils are all that realistically stand between City and the EPL trophy.United need a pre-Christmas defeat by City like they need a hole in midfield.
Luckily, Matic walked off at Watford. He didn't leave on a stretcher. But he'll leave United on their knees if he doesn't recover quickly.
MAN UNITED DECEMBER FIXTURES
This Sunday: Arsenal (away)
- Dec 6: CSKA Moscow (home)
- Dec 11: Man City (home)
- Dec 14: Bournemouth (home)
- Dec 17: West Brom (away)
- Dec 21: Bristol City (away)
- Dec 24: Leicester City (away)
- Dec 26: Burnley (home)
- Dec 31: Southampton (home)