Manchester United-Tottenham Hotspur Preview
The first real measuring test of how far Manchester United have progressed under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally arrives Sunday when they face Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium.
Solskjaer has won all five of his matches in charge since the sacking of Jose Mourinho, but the opponents United (11-5-5) have faced have been, to use boxing parlance, tomato cans.
Three of the four league wins came against relegation threatened sides - Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. The fourth versus a Bournemouth team who take little more than a passing interest in defence.
The Red Devils maintained their 100 percent record under the former Norse striker with a 2-0 victory over Championship side Reading in a third-round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford on Saturday. Solskjaer was able to overturn nine of his starters from a 2-0 win over Newcastle, keeping centre back Phil Jones and midfielder Juan Mata.
Mata opened the scoring on 22 minutes with a penalty after he earned the foul, and Romelu Lukaku scored in first-half stoppage time for his third goal in as many matches since returning from compassionate leave. With the increased confidence in attack - and with good reason since United's 16 goals since Solskjaer took over match the total from their previous 10 matches in all competitions - the interim boss has promised to try and stay on the front foot for this contest.
"You all know the best teams in the league and of course we have to be aware of their strengths. But I've been brought up in a way that we need to attack teams," he told the club's official website. "I think that's our strength as well, going forward and attacking, as a team when you look at us now the way we've played.
"We're not going to get as many chances to attack against these (Spurs) as we've had before, so we've got to be ready for when we get hold of the ball and play well with it to make sure we use the whole pitch because Wembley is a decent-sized pitch as well."
Solskjaer confirmed in-form and rejuvenated midfielder Paul Pogba will be available for this match after spending last weekend in the Middle East receiving treatment for a knock suffered against Newcastle, but centre back Marcos Rojo is in his native Argentina receiving treatment for his injury.
Most of the starting XI from the Newcastle match will likely be restored in this encounter, with the centre back pairing of Jones and Chris Smalling all but certain since Eric Bailly will complete a three-match ban for his straight red card given in the win over Bournemouth.
The lone sticking point is whether Lukaku's form warrants his first league start since Solskjaer took over. In the current 4-2-3-1 set-up Solskjaer prefers, Lukaku would likely lead the line and push Marcus Rashford onto the right wing, perhaps at the expense of Jesse Lingard.
For Spurs (16-0-5), this is a huge match on many levels. Manchester City's win over Liverpool also resulted in the north London side getting a lifeline back into the Premier League race as they are now six points behind the table-topping Reds and two back of the reigning champions for second.
It also marks the first opportunity for the Lilywhites to do the double over United since the 1999-2000 season, a chance squandered with a 3-1 loss at Old Trafford in May 2000. Tottenham have not accomplished the feat since the First Division days in 1989-90, but having emphatically thumped United 3-0 in the reverse fixture in August in Manchester to exorcise some of those demons, this is a prime chance for Tottenham show they can handle prosperity and not be "so Spursy."
Tottenham put some of that talk to rest Tuesday with a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. Harry Kane's penalty on 27 minutes separated the sides and made him the first player in club history to score 20 or more goals in all competitions in five straight seasons.
"We're in a good stage, we're in a semi-final (Carabao Cup) with a 1-0 lead, we're in the FA Cup and Champions League and we're not too far off in the Premier League, although there is a long way to go," Kane told SkySports. "So far, so good, but it's this stage of the season that we have just fallen behind in the past so it is important this year that we step it up, work even harder and go into these games and try and bring it home."
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino downplayed talk of how different this match would be compared to the victory in August, in which Lucas Moura had a brace after Harry Kane opened the scoring with a professional header on 50 minutes off a corner from Kieran Trippier. Instead, the Argentine is expecting a typically tough contest from the fellow perennials.
"It's going to be a very nice game. Always Tottenham vs Manchester, Manchester vs Tottenham, every time that we play are always exciting, very competitive games," he said. "Of course this Sunday it will be a very nice game to watch. It will be tough, I think Manchester United arrive in a very good level, with very good momentum."
This match provided yet another opportunity to link Pochettino with the United job, a position he has yet to offer a definitive answer about regarding his interest. This time, though, the question was regarding Solskjaer's motivation to win this match given he has already come out and said he wants to be the full-time manager of United.
"Of course when you're a manager or coach you cannot be focused on all the rumours. The most important thing is the motivation that we have to do our job in our best way," he said during his Friday press conference. "Of course Manchester is going to come on Sunday trying to win. Of course for him it's a massive motivation or challenge to manage Manchester United, like for me it's a massive challenge to be in front for this football club, Tottenham."
Pochettino does have some selection concerns with the availability of centre back Jan Vertonghen uncertain. The Spurs boss does not lack for options at the position to partner with Toby Alderweireld - whom Mourinho coveted for United this summer - but if Vertonghen cannot pair with his Belgian compatriot, Davinson Sanchez is expected to continue in the role.
This will be the final match for winger Heung-Min Son in the short term, as the South Korea international will join his compatriots for the Asian Cup. Spurs and South Korea worked out an arrangement in which Son would join them after this match, something that has been a massive benefit for Spurs as Son has been in blistering form with seven goals and five assists in his last six matches.
Tottenham are unbeaten in their last six league matches versus United (3-3-0), winning the last three on the trot. United, though, did beat Spurs 2-1 in the last meeting at Wembley in April in the FA Cup semifinals, getting goals from Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera to offset an early strike from Dele Alli.
Updated January 11, 2019