7 games to shape Uniteds season
What a difference a few days can make. Manchester United found themselves licking their European wounds having surrendered a one-goal lead to fluff their lines in spectacular fashion upon their return to the Champions League group stage.
As they trudged off the field in Eindhoven, following a 2-1 defeat to PSV, it was difficult to know what to expect from the Red Devils heading forward.
Their continental campaign had just got off to the worst possible start, while domestically Louis van Gaal’s side were having to turn a deaf ear to those billing ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City as ‘the side to beat in the Premier League title race’ following a faultless start which had delivered 15 points from five top-flight outings and no goals conceded.
If any doubts had started to creep in as they headed home from the Netherlands, they were well and truly banished by Sunday afternoon.
It is safe to assume that the United camp were leading the cheerleading party, as City returned to action with a home date against away-day specialists West Ham United.
They would have tuned in more in hope than expectation, but Slaven Bilic’s side – who had already secured the notable scalps of Arsenal and Liverpool on their travels – sent another seismic shockwave through the division as they not only breached the Blues’ watertight back line, but did so on two occasions to hang on for a memorable 2-1 success.
Just over 24 hours later, United knew what was expected of them at Southampton, and rather stumbled their way out of the blocks as the hosts took a deserved lead.
The Red Devils were not about to let their moment pass, though, and hit back in style – offering three goals of their own in response and fending off some sustained late pressure from the Saints to cling on for a 3-2 win.
All of a sudden, from having been five points adrift and wondering when cracks in City’s armour might show, Van Gaal’s men were just two points off the summit and cut in to 6/1 shots to recapture the Premier League crown on betfair’s exchanges.
There is, of course, a long way to go and, looking at the fixture list, it is easy to make a case for United’s next seven games shaping their season.
They may have successfully negotiated one bend in the road on the south coast, but that corner has led them to a crossroads.
Over the course of the next five weeks, United will turn out in three competitions – events that they will be desperate to make headway in and position themselves among the leading pack on multiple fronts.
Having successfully returned to the Champions League at the first time of asking, the challenge now is – unquestionably – to get themselves back on the trophy trail and to prove to themselves, and everyone else, that they are serious contenders for the grandest of prizes.
The next instalment of that quest arrives in the form of a Capital One Cup clash with Ipswich Town.
United will be expected to dispose of Championship opposition with the minimum of fuss, but the same was said 12 months ago as they prepared for a meeting with third tier hopefuls MK Dons, and we all know how that happened there.
They will, at least, be on home soil this time around, with their next three outings – across the aforementioned competitions – all due to be staged at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal will expect that scheduling to work in his favour, with it imperative that the Theatre of Dreams becomes the fortress it was under the tutelage of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
Should Ipswich be successfully sent packing in midweek, attention will then switch back to the league, with it possible that top spot may be up for grabs by the time they take to the field against Sunderland.
City are due at White Hart Lane on Saturday lunchtime, and any slip-up in the capital would leave the door ajar for United to return to a stage on which they feel they belong, but one they have not graced for some time now.
Bridging that gap, even if it is pulling level with the Blues, will help to keep the feel-good factor flowing and should have the Red Devils flying into a Champions League clash with Wolfsburg – one they really need to win following their PSV hiccup.
It is then, though, that things really start to heat up and United’s credentials, both at home and abroad, will be tested to the full.
After three home games on the spin, they then face three on their travels.
A trip to Arsenal on the back of an important European encounter is hardly ideal – although the same can be said for both sides – while a trip to the Emirates is followed by one to Goodison Park to take on Everton, and then an epic one across the continent to face CSKA Moscow.
United will need to shake their jetlag pretty quickly, though, as they head back to British shores to prepare for a potentially season-defining derby date with City on October 25th.
That will be the seventh game of their crunch run, with it possible that the next month or so will make or break United’s 2015/16 campaign.
They are priced around the 7/1 mark at the time of writing to go all the way in the League Cup – a trophy that has eluded them since 2010 – and are considered to be 25/1 outsiders to secure a fourth European Cup triumph, but those prices will fall if progress can be made over the coming weeks.
For United, the challenge from this point is to merely keep themselves in contention.
No awards are handed out in September/October, but you can drop yourself out of the running with untimely wobbles during that period.
Van Gaal has been around long enough to know that and will be hoping – with an international break also thrown into the mix – that his troops gather their bearings quickly and head off in the right direction over the coming days, with any wrong turn having the potential to crush their dreams.