Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United
Sunday, January 13th, Wembley Stadium, kick off 4:30pm
Quite apart from the battle for Premier league points, Sunday's sub plot sees two contenders for the role of next full time manager of Manchester United coming face to face. With 15 wins in their last 18 matches in all competitions, Tottenham lie third, six points behind leaders Liverpool. Facing a revitalised Manchester United side, three places and 10 points further adrift, Mauricio Pochettino knows that any slip up would reduce the the chance of his side winning a long awaited first title since the double winning season of 1960/61.
His opposite number Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, after a favourable run of games, knows that this will be the most severe test of his first month in temporary charge. Another win here and maybe the man who had such a poor time when in charge at Cardiff City in 2014 could be further down the road of being considered for one of the most prestigious jobs in world football, on a permanent basis; the caretaker who stepped up and grabbed his chance when the opportunity arose. Much like he did during a playing career when he so often came to the rescue when his team was in need.
After the surprise 3-1 home loss to Wolves over the Christmas period, which brought to an end a run of five straight victories, Tottenham have bounced back to form. Three wins, starting with 3-0 at Cardiff City and followed with cup victories at Tranmere 7-0 and a Carabao Cup semi-final first leg 1-0 success at home over Chelsea have settled any nerves. The midfield diamond, which supports the front three of Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli and Harry Kane (eight goals in his last eight Premier league starts), gets through a lot of work with Christian Eriksen in the leading support role of creator in chief. The defence, lacking Jan Vertonghen for now, is more than solid with five clean sheets in the last eight. Following an early season home loss to Manchester City they have now won seven of the last eight games at what was intended to be their temporary home. Tuesday night's victory over Chelsea was a reward for a team who worked hard even when the game wasn't going their way.
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While Tottenham were gaining an edge over Chelsea, their opponents were out in Dubai getting in some warm weather training. In the few weeks since the 3-1 defeat at Anfield, which signalled the end of Jose Mourinho's three year reign, the dark mood at the club seems to have been lifted and the shackles have been released. The five consecutive wins with a goal difference of 16-3 which has restored confidence is partly down to the positive approach adopted by a group players who are looking to go forward at every opportunity. So far so good, but way too early to get carried away. Bournemouth in 12th place have been the highest ranked opponent in a run which has included away victories over Cardiff City and Newcastle United, added to home successes over Huddersfield and Reading in the FA Cup.
Paul Pogba, whose own future at the club was under question, has been given added licence to go forward, while Marcus Rashford (three goals in four starts) and Anthony Martial look to have had a heavy weight lifted off their shoulders. The game plan seems to have been simplified and the players are operating with freedom and are maximising where the strength of the team lies; at the top end of the field. Defensively problems remain and what works against mid to lower sides in the table may not be as effective when the quality of the opposition is raised. Christian Eriksen and Son, in his final game before departing for the Asian Cup, will revel in any space left vacant against a team with only one clean sheet (Newcastle (a) 2-0) in their last nine league games. With Eric Bailly suspended and Chris Smalling doubtful the Manchester United defence will come under pressure as the away side look to gain their first points in this fixture since a 0-0 draw in December 2014. Their last victory was a 3-1 success in March 2012, and they are also seeking revenge for the 3-0 loss at Old Trafford on August 27th.
There may be some at Tottenham who would sacrifice a defeat if they thought that would mean Pochettino would still be in charge of their side come the beginning of next season. However, for the team yet to draw in the league (W16, L5) another three points and their title aspirations for this season will live on. Still very much alive in four competitions, the next few months could be very interesting times for the side from North London, not to mention their in demand manager.
Suggested bet : Tottenham win and both teams to score (available at 5-2)
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