Manchester United (whisper it quietly) seem to have built a bit of momentum. Performances have been on a pleasing trajectory for the last couple of weeks and, despite disappointment against Everton, results could be about to turn around. Victory over Tottenham on Sunday afternoon kept Jose Mourinho’s side alive in the race for the top four, but that will be a shallow joy if they do not continue their form against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
The trouble for Mourinho this season has been keeping standards high. Strong performances, particularly in the cup competitions, have given hope during a stuttering season. At times they have shown signs that this team are capable of more, but all too often those encouraging performances have been followed by abject displays or poor results. Every time they look to be breaking over the crest of the hill they have been climbing for years, they slide back down again.
Palace too have thrust themselves out of a rut. Six goals and four points in their last two games have brought an end to a dire string of defeats, probably saving Alan Pardew’s job in the process. A visit to a bouncing Selhurst Park on a midweek evening is not going to be a pleasant experience for Manchester United. Their defence will be tested by the power of Christian Benteke and the dazzling footwork of their former player, Wilfried Zaha. Football has a habit of throwing up stories like that
It is, in so many ways, the kind of fixture that will trouble Mourinho’s side. Manchester United’s full-back troubles will be tested by Zaha and Andros Townsend, but they can have faith that they will create chances of their own. Only three teams have conceded more goals in the league this season than the Eagles. Perhaps worryingly for Manchester United, they have also scored more than every other side outside the top four.
Their results and league position are representative of their season in part, but that does not undermine the threat that Palace pose. If Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United is to amount for anything, he simply must win games like this. It is an opportunity to build a good streak of results, something they have failed to do since the start of the campaign.
Results at the weekend reduced United’s top four deficit to six points. But that will be extinguished unless they can conquer their pattern of the season. Victories over Leicester City, Manchester City (in the EFL Cup), Swansea City and Feyenoord were all followed by disappointing league results: encouraging highs followed by devastating lows. League football gives no prizes for the individual performance and United have failed to compile any notable run of form since they won their opening four Premier League games.
Each game seems to present a critical moment for Manchester United since defeat to Manchester City in September. That is entirely of their own making. Allowing the gap from the top four to inflate over the last couple of months has increased the pressure on each and every match. With every point dropped, their chances of qualifying for the Champions League decrease. It is a problem they have brought upon themselves and a club of Manchester United’s stature cannot expect anything other than such expectations. The only way to calm the hysteria around each poor result, is to prove that they can maintain some form for a prolonged period of time.