Manchester City are comfortably leading the Premier League title race, setting up some intriguing battles below them for those sides who hope to compete for the title should City falter at any stage. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are currently equal on points – 20 each, and will face off at the Theatre of Dreams in a match in which the result could cause serious repercussions for both teams going forward. The winner, if there is one, will keep pace with high flying City, while the loser runs the risk of getting sucked into the ruthless battle unfolding for fourth place and the last remaining Champion’s League spot. Let’s have a look at where this match could be won and lost for these two sides:
Harry Kane v Chris Smalling/Eric Bailly: Harry Kane is Spurs’ man of the moment after his emphatic hat-trick against Liverpool shot him to the top of the leading scorer chart. United have had an impressively frugal defence all season, but everything Kane touches turns to gold at the moment. The United centre-backs are going to need to have flawless performances to keep him quiet, and after their hiccup against Huddersfield, United may not feel quite so impervious.
Matic/Herrera v Winks/Alli: If Pochettino plays the same 3-5-2 formation that got him so much joy against Liverpool, Matic and Herrera are going to have their hands full trying to control the movement of the Spurs attacks through midfield. Likewise can be said of Spurs, but since United have so little creativity in their midfield without Pogba, this battle seems weighted in Tottenham’s favour.
Lukaku v Sanchez/Vertonghen: Lukaku has pulled his weight for United all season, but he has yet to truly kick into high gear against elite opposition. His contributions in recent games have been disappointing, so there’s going to be a significant amount of pressure on the Belgian to deliver in what’s likely to be United’s biggest game of the season so far. Before it becomes a sword over his head, he’s going to need to get a goal against top opposition to settle his nerves.
Three Things to Watch:
Lukaku’s Top 6 Record: Romelu Lukaku has an inconvenient (but mostly accurate) reputation of not scoring frequently enough against top opposition – mostly getting his goals against teams in the bottom half. If stats are anything to go by United are going to need to rely on someone else to get them their goals in this match.
Mirror Image? Spurs and United play very similar systems, often keeping a compact structure to absorb opposition pressure and then countering once the opponent loses possession. United have been woeful when holding onto the ball this season, so based on current form, it would suit Spurs to sit back and hit United on the counter, which is ironically Mourinho’s favoured tactic to employ. It will be interesting to see which manager breaks rank and attempts something different.
Defensive Headache for Mourinho: Mourinho has been shuffling and reshuffling United’s back line a lot lately due to injury and poor form giving him selection headaches. Left back is a particularly soft spot for United because they have no established player for the position, and their centre-back options have been diminished due to an injury to Phil Jones. Mourinho’s defences are usually impeccable, but his lack of first choice options and players returning from injury could mean they’re unlikely to be as composed and confident as they usually are.
Predicted Line Ups:
There’s an enormous amount of pressure on United to redeem themselves after their shock loss to Huddersfield last weekend, and Spurs is a confident and resilient side that mimic many of United’s best qualities because of how tactically similar the two respective managers are. Mourinho may have only received light criticism for his overly conservative approach away at Liverpool, but he won’t be spared any vitriol if he appears to be afraid of Spurs at home. In many ways, this is a key match in Mourinho’s United career because of the recurring disdain fans have communicated about his playing style. If United don’t manage a win this weekend, it will put to bed any hopes fans may have had about winning the title this season in the face of City’s relentless attacking power.
This match seems like it’s going to be lost and won by the centre-backs, the first one to blink and hand the opposition a clear chance is likely to be the side to walk away empty handed.
Predicted Score: Manchester United 1 – 1 Tottenham Hotspur
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