Both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are dealing with sizable distractions ahead of Monday’s showdown at Old Trafford.
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Jose Mourinho’s third-season meltdowns at previous stops in England and Europe are well-documented, and the prospect of another one seems to be growing with each passing day. He is still reportedly upset club vice chairman Ed Woodward failed to land any of his summer transfer targets, most notably in central defence, and that contributed to United’s horrid 3-2 loss at Brighton and Hove Albion on Aug. 19.
The pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof – centre backs whom Mourinho wanted and United (1-0-1) got for a combined £60 million – both endured a torrid time in the opening 45 minutes when they conceded all three goals. Lindelof was directly responsible for the first and Bailly committed the foul that resulted in a penalty for the third.
As opposed to late last term when Mourinho excoriated his players, the Portuguese manager held his tongue publicly after the match, saying “please don’t ask me to go in this direction because it’s not good for me.”
Midfielder Paul Pogba, who would have been one of those players Mourinho likely would have criticised given he lost possession 28 times versus Brighton, created his own swirl of post-match controversy by saying “My attitude wasn’t right” to MUTV.
The midfielder, who has converted penalties in United’s first two matches, is also getting stick for failing to keep his agent Mino Raiola out of the media’s eye. Raiola got into a social media dust-up with ex-United midfielder and BT Sport pundit Paul Scholes, who criticised Pogba’s lack of leadership in the defeat.
Raiola shot back Scholes “wouldn’t recognize a leader if he was in front of Sir Winston Churchill,” and sarcastically suggested he should become United’s sports director. Pogba failed to help matters Thursday by making a shushing motion on an Instagram post while unveiling his new line of adidas footwear to mark France’s World Cup title.
Mourinho was then at his tetchy best in Friday’s pre-match news conference, which lasted all of four minutes and 19 seconds. He confirmed his relationship his Woodward as fine by responding “of course” to the question, told reporters to take up Pogba’s comments with the midfielder, offered little about how the squad trained during the week, and only conceded Spurs will be a “difficult match, against a team that last season finished top four, so difficult match.”
The most newsworthy portion was learning Alexis Sanchez, Nemanja Matic, Antonio Valencia all are training with the first team. Sanchez was a surprise omission last week due to a muscle injury, while first-team regulars Matic and Valencia have yet to make their season debuts.
Valencia would be a welcome sight at right back, where both Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young struggled to cover ground in the opening two matches. Matic could provide a needed counterweight to Pogba, taking his customary spot in front of the back four and forming a diamond with him, Fred and striker Romelu Lukaku as Sanchez and either Marcus Rashford or Juan Mata roam the flanks.
Things were humming along nicely for Tottenham Hotspur (2-0-0), who put aside the chatter of standing pat this summer with victories over Newcastle United and new boys Fulham. Harry Kane freed himself of the August albatross by finally scoring his first league goal in the first month of the season to cap a 3-1 win over the Cottagers on Aug. 18.
Yet all those good feelings were wiped away with the news keeper Hugo Lloris was charged with drink-driving in the early hours Friday in west London. The talisman of France’s World Cup winning side quickly released a statement through the team in which he wanted “to apologise wholeheartedly to my family, the club, my teammates, the manager and all of the supporters” and added “I take full responsibility for my actions and it is not the example I wish to set.”
Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has yet to say whether the charge will lead to him benching his No. 1 keeper for this match. There have been reports Lloris will be stripped of the captaincy, which would be given to Kane – who wore the armband for England at the World Cup.
Last weekend’s win over Fulham saw Spurs at full strength save Heung-Min Son’s absence as he plays for South Korea in the Asian Games. Lucas Moura filled that spot and scored the opening goal of the match, and Kieran Trippier – a key cog in England’s run to the semifinals in Russia – scored the match-winner with a well-taken free kick.
This match could also make Mourinho wistful for Spurs centre back Toby Alderweireld, who was one of the players on his summer wish list. He became the most realistic option before the transfer deadline after United were priced out of signing Leicester City and England international Harry Maguire.
The Belgium international had wanted out of north London due to a lack of playing time – due to both a hamstring injury and the fallout of a contract standoff – but Alderweireld got his first start against Fulham as part of a 3-4-1-2 set-up and is expected to be in the first XI again versus United. Based on Pochettino’s comments after the victory over Fulham, the relationship between the pair appears to be merely professional at best.
“I won’t talk about him, I’ll talk in general always,” Pochettino told The Times. “I want players committed with the team. Players that are not happy, from my point of view, can leave. Then it’s different if they can negotiate with Daniel (Levy) or not.
“But if they are going to be here, I want full commitment. If not, tomorrow we can find a solution. I am so tired of talking about this.”
United have won four on the trot at home – the last three by 1-0 counts — over the Lilywhites and carry a 384-minute shutout streak there since Christian Eriksen scored the winner in Tottenham’s 2-1 victory to ring in 2014.
Spurs have a track record of abject misery at Old Trafford, winning only two of their last 30 matches (2-4-24) in all competitions. And for all the talk of distractions and dissention around Manchester United, Mourinho’s men did win their last four matches versus top-six sides last term.
Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are slight 6/4 favourites, while Tottenham Hotspur have 15/8 odds to win. The draw is the long shot of the trio carrying 11/4 odds. Since punters expect both teams to score (Yes is a slight favourite at 3/4 over No at 21/20), United are 4/1 favourites to win such an outcome while Spurs are close behind at 9/2.
Punters also seem to be leaning toward a 1-1 draw as that is getting 3/1 odds, followed by a United victory and over 2.5 goals (16/5) and a Spurs victory over 2.5 goals (17/4). Those who feel United can record a fourth consecutive 1-0 scoreline at Old Trafford can get 21/5 odds on that outcome with under 2.5 goals and 7/1 odds on that exact outcome.
Kane leads the line for first-time goal-scorers at 7/2, followed by Lukaku (9/2). Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente is a surprising third option at 11/2, edging out both Sanchez and Rashford at 6/1.
Kane and Lukaku also lead the anytime goal-scorers list at 5/4 and 7/4 respectively. Llorente is again third at 2/1, closely followed by Sanchez (21/10) and Rashford (11/5).For those who believe Pogba will score for a third straight contest via penalty or otherwise, the France international checks in at 3/1.
It may be too early to label this a must-win game for Manchester United, but there is a very real urgency not to lose this contest. Falling six points behind Manchester City after three matches will only fan the flames of panic and sharpen the knives around Old Trafford, and if you thought Mourinho was at his cantankerous best Friday, you can imagine what he would be like with two losses in three out of the blocks.
Getting Sanchez back would be nice, yes, but Matic could wind up being the swing vote in this match should he be ready to go. If Lindelof and Bailly can’t handle the pressure from Pascal Gross and Glenn Murray, how are they going to cope with Kane and Dele Alli while Christian Eriksen supports both through the middle? Matic is an enormous security blanket for the two young centre backs, a role neither Pogba nor Fred fully figured out working in tandem with Andreas Pereira.
The fact two players needed to do it while Matic has been recovering speaks volumes to his importance.
Lloris’ status cannot be fully addressed until Pochettino announces his decision, so there is little to debate for the time being. The between the lines message from Pochettino when discussing/not discussing Alderweireld’s status is the Spurs’ boss seemed ok with chairman Daniel Levy’s decision to stand pat over the summer.
While this goes completely against the arms race the Premier League has become since the most recent television deal, it’s still an interesting long-term gamble that could determine if Spurs are in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal-like holding pattern fighting for a top-four spot or whether Unai Emery’s Arsenal and Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea can overtake them, even as early as this season.
Given how Mourinho does his best work when the outward appearance is he’s cornered, expect United to bare their teeth in a cagey match. Even with Matic, one gets the sense Mourinho’s squad are still not capable of a full-on 90-minute performance in the back without at least one glaring mistake, and Spurs’ defence has also switched off at times.
Predicted Final Score: Manchester United 1, Tottenham Hotspur 1.
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