Manchester United kick-start a hectic fixture list that may well seal their fate – at least as far as their final league placing is concerned.
In light of their early-season wobbles and continued inconsistent form under new manager David Moyes (to United fans it now seems a long, long time ago that a certain Sir Alex Ferguson retired after a seemingly never-ending 26-year reign), it has been a shock to the system to realise that United are no longer the pre-eminent bullies of the league.
Indeed seeing teams like Southampton and Cardiff City steal last-gasp equalisers must surely redefine the term ‘tasting your own medicine’ as much as seeing United ranked a lowly eighth in the league standings.
One of the key things the United board must be hoping they don’t have to face up to is the worst case scenario of United being out of the UEFA Champions league. That would surely be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions, but with a third of the league programme gone and United simply unable to strike any real consistency, well there is a distinct possibility of this happening.
Red Devils fans worldwide will tell you it’s impossible, Moyes himself will refute this but if there is anything that this current season has revealed, it is that the most open title race in years may well bring forth the unthinkable – that of United outside the top four.
It is difficult to imagine how the board would countenance such an as-yet unthinkable event.
The repercussions would be immense; how the club’s worldwide commercial drive would be affected, or whether Moyes would still attract world-class talent; the futures of the club’s current playing personnel as well as just about any other possible fallout that such a scenario would bring.
But lest I receive brickbats for being a prophet of doom, let me switch to the area that matters the most and that will provide a clearer picture come the evening of 1 January 2014.
For United have a run of fixtures which, during years past, would surely have provided a springboard for their well-known title drive to gather momentum. But times change and after United battled back to force a draw against a Tottenham side that frittered away chances on Sunday, their title defence will be almost certainly be over after the next seven games (with the wheel coming full circle after Spurs reciprocate with their visit to Old Trafford on New Year’s Day), if their overall form does not improve drastically.
Commencing with Everton’s visit on Wednesday, United then face unpredictable Newcastle at Old Trafford on Saturday before squaring off against Aston Villa away on the 15th of December.
Sam Allardyce’s struggling West Ham will be next up at the Theatre of Dreams on the 21st as the festive cheer approaches its climax, then Hull City (or Hull City Tigers, depending on which supporters are prepared ‘to die’ for the correct title) on Boxing Day and Norwich City two days later provide further examination of Moyes’ patchy away form.
By the time the dust settles on the United–Spurs encounter during the first evening of 2014 - every United fan will be hoping that they are within touching distance of the top of the standings.
Sandwiched between the Magpies and the Villans encounters is a UEFA Champions League group decider against crack Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk, a game Moyes will want to win but also rest key players for the busy Christmas period.
There is also the ‘massive’ League Cup encounter against Stoke City nestled between the Villa and West Ham games. The real concern must be how United’s midfield will cope without Michael Carrick.
Against Spurs, Tom Cleverly disappointed and it must be a mystery as to how a player who had an excellent win percentage when playing last season can play so badly this term.
Marouane Fellaini is increasingly looking like a round peg in a square hole in midfield whilst the bubbly Anderson has fared no better in a problem position for the Old Trafford side.
With Phil Jones on an automatic ban for the Everton match after accumulating five yellow cards, United will be down to their bare bones in the middle, not just for the Blues visit but for the entire festive period.
One option would be to play Shinji Kagawa in a slightly deeper role, especially where Phil Jones can play the bodyguard position, then rotate Nani, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and teenager Adnan Januzaj in the wide positions.
With the Da Silva twins Rafael and Fabio able to rest Evra and Smalling from the full back roles, perhaps Moyes may consider even playing Johnny Evans in a defensive midfield position, if the situation becomes desperate, to freshen his team throughout this crucial period.
Moyes has not proved to be adept at rotation in the manner Sir Alex perennially managed to do every season. Can he mix and match whist retaining a winning formula, and especially with a threadbare middle order? The afore-mentioned trio of Anderson, Cleverly and Fellaini will have to up their game to very high levels and perform with distinction particularly during this festive period lest they find themselves make-weights (except Fellaini, of course) in deals during the subsequent transfer window.
The latter has to adapt his game to fit in and justify his expensive tag so as to erase the growing and unwanted title of being Moyes’ first major flop. Surely it will be a long month for Moyes before the winter transfer window can provide a modicum of relief and freshness.
For all the other players, with the exception of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Patrice Evra and David de Gea, their performance graphs have to chart an upward trajectory if the club is to avoid the ignominy of being the first team to fail to finish in the top four as reigning champions since Blackburn Rovers in 1996.
The unthinkable will have happened. Surely that can never happen now, can it?
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