Why the next fortnight will end up deciding Manchester United's season

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Why the next fortnight will end up deciding Manchester United's season

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Faizan Qadiri

10/13/2016

At the start of the 2017 Premier League season, if you asked any United fan if he thought the coming round of fixtures would be as important as they are right now, they would have laughed it off as a joke.

The signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and world-record signing Paul Pogba, with Jose Mourinho at the helm, sounded like a recipe for instant success from the get go with some pundits even going as far as to claim that Manchester United would walk the league.

Mourinho has already written his name into the Manchester United record books by becoming the first manager to win his first four games in charge of the club.

But three defeats in as many games has built the kind of pressure Mourinho experienced at Chelsea a season before when he faced the sack midway through the campaign. The nay-sayers were immediately out in numbers, and Wayne Rooney was relegated to the bench - a decision most United fans agree with.

A 4-1 win over Champions Leicester was quickly followed by a tame draw against Stoke City at Old Trafford. Although "the special one" called it the best performance of the season, pessimism had crept back in just as quickly as it had disappeared before the team spilt up again to play for their respective countries.

Now that the Premier League returns this weekend, United face four important games in a row that could have a lasting effect on their season. A fortnight that includes trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge, while United will play Fenerbahçe(Europa League) and Manchester City(League Cup) at Old Trafford.

Contrasting records after the International break

Under Louis van Gaal last season, United had a wonderful record in the league following the conclusion of the International break winning all their games. Under Mourinho, however, they lost their first game after the International break to cross-city rivals Manchester City in the much-awaited first Manchester Derby of the season.

Liverpool players, on the other hand, won their first game back from national team duty thrashing Leicester 4-1. But their record was not as flattering in the season gone when they collected just 5 points out of a possible 12.

One major factor that led to United opting for Mourinho over other managers is his incredible record against the "big clubs". In 44 matches against the current top four, Mourinho has lost just six matches while winning an incredible 25.

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United's tough run will begin at Anfield against an in-form Liverpool side who have lost just one game this season with wins in each of their last four games. However, the Red Devils can take confidence in their recent record against their bitter rivals – after all, they have won all of their last four Premier League encounters.

Next up is Fenerbahce, who travel to Old Trafford as leaders of Group A with former United striker Robin van Persie among their ranks. The next game will revolve around Jose Mourinho who will return to Stamford Bridge as Manchester United manager after having coached the London side to three Premier League titles.

Mourinho will next lock horns with Pep Guardiola for the second time this season in the League cup encounter after succumbing to a 2-1 defeat earlier in the PL. The manager, who has won silverware in his first season at every club he has managed so far since Porto (charity shield not included), will be looking to secure this easy target if he wants to keep up his streak at any cost.

Glass half full

The best case scenario for United is quite obviously going on a four-game winning run. The two league wins will take them to 19 points. Arsenal have the easiest fixtures over the next two rounds facing Swansea and newly promoted Middlesbrough at the Emirates, and therefore the assumption that they would end up with six points is a fair one taking their tally to 22 points.

Table toppers Manchester City face a rejuvenated Everton side, managed by Ronald Koeman, in their next fixture and might find it difficult to come away with all three points after failing to win their last two games. The second round of fixtures would see them take on Southampton which usually ends with City taking the spoils – City have won four of the last five meetings between the clubs. That would keep the Manchester rivals at the top with 22 points.

Given the assumption that United come out on top against Liverpool, the Reds will play West Brom in their next game, and the Tony Pulis-led team might be hard to break down. But Liverpool's current form would see them come out on top and finishing the gameweek with 19 points.

Meanwhile, Chelsea have seen a dip in their form following the bright start they made to this season winning just one in their last four. They play Leicester in the first game on Saturday with both teams needing a result, and the game could end with both teams splitting the difference.

Finally, Spurs are the only unbeaten team in the Premier League and are high on confidence after beating City in the last round of fixtures, but playing West Brom and Bournemouth away from White Hart Lane and hoping for six points might be a bit of a stretch.

Should results go United's way, the red devils will be right back into the Championship race being just two points behind leaders City.

Team

Points

Manchester City

22

Arsenal

22

Spurs

21

Manchester United

20

Liverpool

20

In the Europa League, Mourinho's men need a victory at Old Trafford to be in contention for qualification into the knockout rounds. A win will put United level on points with Feyenoord at six-a-piece, assuming the Dutch team are able to beat Zorya. United will only require four points (1 win and 1 draw)in the remaining matches to progress.

Glass half empty

However, should United fail to deliver on two wins and somehow are unable to take a single point from the two fixtures, they might have to change their ambitions for the season. Even though it is pretty early, United could find themselves 11 points behind City should City win both their games and Guardiola would not let go of the lead that easily.

In the Europa League, a loss to Fenerbahce would leave United stuck on 3 points with just one game to play at home in the remaining three fixtures. It would be difficult for United to recover from that as their away performances this season have been inconsistent.

Mourinho might have to reconsider his plans for the season should his team struggle in the league. Top four would still be within touching distance, but the focus might have to be shifted to the Europa League in order to secure next season's Champions League.

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A blast from the past

United, however, can take solace from the fact that they have been in such a situation before as a club when criticism was at an all time high. But the club managed to pull through to "get their trophy back".

Walking down memory lane to a season before Arsenal won the Premier League, United found themselves with just 8 points in 6 games in the 2002-03 season. The press began sharpening their knives with major names, David Beckham, Juan Veron, Diego Forlan and Ruud van Nistelrooy, called out for their ineffective displays.

With Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal coming up in consecutive games, Fergie's United looked to be heading for even more trouble with Nicky Butt and Roy Keane facing time on the sidelines with injuries.

But, United beat the Geordies by a score of 5-3 with the help of a van Nistelrooy hattrick before winning 2-1 at Anfield in a season when Liverpool had gone on a seven-game winning streak. The now famous Forlan song still sung at the theater of dreams was sung there first after the Uruguayan's brace "made the Scousers cry".

Defending Champions Arsenal provided the next roadblock, but goals from Veron and Scholes settled the tie in favor of the Manchester club. The game brought the red half of Manchester back into the reckoning in a season that United ended up winning by five points.

The team found an unlikely hero in Phil Neville, who found his way into the side because of injuries. The day after the match Newspaper headlines were shocked that Neville had been the man "to blow the title race open again".

If United want to fight for the title, they need their players to show up for these headline games. Else one of the players needs to stand up when needed the most and drag them over the line like Phil Neville did all those years ago.

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