Swansea City-Manchester United Preview
For now, the pressure has eased. But the wins have yet to come.
With the turning of the calendar year, Manchester United are hoping better things will come starting with Saturday's match versus Swansea City at Old Trafford.
Though United's winless drought reached six matches (0-3-3) in league play and eight overall, there was a sense of palpable relief around the Theatre of Dreams following Monday's scoreless draw versus Chelsea. Louis van Gaal is still a manager under fire, rumours about Jose Mourinho taking his place are still bandied about and the Red Devils are sixth on 30 points - slipping further from the title chase - but it was clear the Dutchman had not lost his players, who put in an inspired effort and had shots by Juan Mata and Anthony Martial hit the woodwork.
"When the players are fighting for me, I stay," said van Gaal, who was publicly backed by predecessor David Moyes during the week, "because that is the most important thing and you have seen that today.
"Inside of the club, the players are willing to fight for every meter, the manager is willing to fight, the members of staff are willing to fight and the board is very confident in the staff and the manager," he added, "so (the crisis) is not inside Manchester United."
While the effort was there, the goals once more were not. It was the third time in four home matches across all competitions Manchester United (8-6-5) failed to score and the seventh time in 29 matches they've played to a 0-0 deadlock. It's resulted in United's worst point total through the first round of fixtures in the Premier League era. They were last worse than this in 1989-90 on 22 points through 19 matches.
"We want to stick at the top end of the table and when you dominate games you need to win them," defender Chris Smalling told United's official website. "We'll take some positives and make sure we come back stronger."
With the January transfer window set to open, there is a dire need for a striker and perhaps some other attacking options to relieve some of the pressure off precocious 20-year-old Martial and erstwhile captain Wayne Rooney, whom some consider lucky to be available for this match following a reckless challenge against Oscar late in Monday's match that only earned him a yellow card.
Despite a 4-4-1 record in league play at Old Trafford, United have conceded just three goals there - two coming in their Dec. 19 loss to Norwich City.
Swansea City (4-7-8) are all too familiar with managerial scrutiny, having jettisoned Garry Monk in December. Caretaker Alan Curtis has overseen an uptick with the Swans, who have taken five points from their last three matches without conceding in that span.
That, coupled with a chance to do the double for a second straight season over the mighty Red Devils, has Curtis pushing his team to dream big as they look to improve on their current 17th spot in the table - two points clear of the relegation zone.
"We've done exceptionally well against them in the last three games," Curtis told Swansea's official website. "But we know it will be a tough game and we'll have to be at our best again. There's a confidence creeping back into us with the results we've had and the performances have been excellent too.
"We've just got to go there and perform, be bold and play our football."
Swansea are trying to become only the second team in the Premier League era to do the double in consecutive seasons versus Manchester United, with Liverpool turning the trick in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
All three victories over United have been by 2-1 margins, and Swansea have rallied in the last two. In the reverse fixture in August, goals by Andre Ayew and Bafetimbi Gomis five minutes apart in the second half helped the Swans overcome Mata's tally in the 48th minute.
Gomis, though, has scored only once in 14 matches since netting that winner after blazing from the gates with four goals in his first four contests. Ayew had three in his first four league games but is now trying to avoid a sixth straight match without finding the back of the net.