Once again we kick-off at a non-standard time – this one is 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. We get the chance to watch two teams whose recent form leaves a lot to be desired. At this stage of the season you need to have some form of motivation to perform at your best, and I’m afraid we are somewhat lacking at the moment. OK, the performance against Chelsea was better than what we witnessed against Everton a couple of weeks ago, but to be quite frank, after the raised hopes of our winning streak in December, 2019 has turned out to be rather flat.
The difference today is that Manchester United still have a target to aim for, namely a place in the top four and the Champions League qualification that comes with it, whereas we don’t really have much to get us going other than professional pride, and trying to finish in the top half of the table. Our manager wants us to improve with every game and believes that “we still have a mathematical chance for Europe and we must try for that.” Who is he kidding? Mathematical, yes, but realistically no chance whatsoever.
If we win today (and that’s a massive if, around 7/1 with bookmakers but surely the odds should be much greater than that!) it would be the first time that we’ve picked up six points in a season against the Red Devils since 2006-07, when they were champions, and we completed the “Great Escape” on the final day of the season. We won both games that season by 1-0, with Nigel Reo-Coker scoring in the home win a week or so before Christmas, and of course Carlos Tevez netting the winner in the last game. That was a season to remember; Tevez and Mascherano, Eggert Magnusson, Pardew sacked, Curbishley appointed, seven of the last nine games won after just five wins in the preceding 29 games, and of course the subsequent financial repercussions of the escape.
But today we don’t have a lot to play for. Our record against United is actually better than against many of the other big clubs, and the last eight league meetings are split with two wins apiece and four draws. However our last league win there was the aforementioned victory on the last day of the season almost 12 years ago.
Despite their impressive form when their new Norwegian manager was appointed on a caretaker basis, recent results have not been good for United, and they have not kept a clean sheet for eight games, their longest run for seven years. They have also lost four of their last five games.
But just look at our away form since 30 December 2018. There was the abysmal defeat to AFC Wimbledon, and in the league on our travels we lost 2-0 to Burnley, 2-0 at Bournemouth, 3-0 at Wolves, 1-0 at Manchester City, 2-0 at Cardiff, and 2-0 at Chelsea. That is six games lost with 12 goals conceded and none scored. In between we did manage a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace, but had Fabianski to be thankful for that, as Palace had numerous shots on our goal in the second half.
Our record of keeping clean sheets is the second worst in the division with five, and only Fulham have kept fewer. Even Huddersfield have kept more clean sheets than we have. Fabianski is miles clear in the number of saves he has made this season compared to every other Premier League custodian, so this tells us everything we need to know about our defending.
And to top all this we are facing Romelu Lukaku who scores goals against us for fun. I’ll be watching and hoping for a surprise of course, but it is hard to see anything other than a defeat as our season limps towards its conclusion.