Manchester United are missing Marouane Fellaini. Really, they are. The draw against Stoke City on New Year's day saw their title ambitions take another hefty blow, and the only silver lining was Arsenal and Liverpool's inability to capitalise. United need their bruising Belgian back, and fast.
It seems such a ludicrous statement given his struggles under David Moyes last term, but United are actually better with him in their side. On a cold, windy day at Stoke, on the sort of stage where even Lionel Messi could struggle (har har), a midfield devoid of a powerful influence often found themselves annoying overpowered and outmuscled.
United were fortunate to escape from the Britannia Stadium with a point. Radamel Falcao displayed his predatory instincts to fire himself one step closer towards a permanent stay in Mancunia, but other than their Columbian superstar the rest of the side struggled with the physicality of Mark Hughes' side.
Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata often probed without success, and even the introduction of Ander Herrera failed to bring life to a midfield often powerless to prevent the likes of Steven Nzonzi and Marko Arnautovic breaking at speed. Chris Smalling was fortunate not to concede a penalty, with Michael Oliver missing his handled blocking of a cross by Peter Crouch.
Mata is a magical player, a rolls royce, but Stoke was not the place for him. Frail but not weak, he was often dispossessed and overpowered with frequent regularity. He, like the lacklustre Robin Van Persie, was lucky to last the distance.
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Fellaini has not featured since United's emphatic victory over Liverpool last month, and since United have struggled on the road with just three points from their last three away matches.
Often a cause for much mocking and humiliation under Moyes, Louis Van Gaal has unleashed the beast from within. He was flawless against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in November, with his power and composure helping United to leave North London with all three points.
The spark and hunger missing under the Scot is back. Gangly but gutsy, he adds solidarity in defence and height in attack. At both ends of the field, his contribution is both admired and now missed in equal measure.
He is not the long term solution, but he will do for now. Kevin Strootman of Roma will join within the next year, and the Dutchman's relationship with Van Gaal would see him replace the Belgian within the starting 11.
Rooney is a rampaging warrior within the arena, but whilst still adjusting to his new midfield role is not the whole package. At Old Trafford is where his best performances come, with his struggles on the road symbolic of his side's own difficulties away from the Theatre of Dreams.
There is not return date yet for Fellaini's return, but the sooner he returns the sooner their title challenge could regain the momentum lost by recent draws away at Stoke, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa.
Chelsea are beginning to crack under the pressure, whilst Manchester City's reliance on Frank Lampard could be an achilles heel by the time the season draws to a close in May.
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