Chelsea-Manchester United Preview
Clearly someone didn't enjoy their wine and mince pie this Boxing Day.
Old Trafford could be the site of Louis van Gaal's last stand as punch-drunk Manchester United try to stop the rot Monday against a Chelsea side still adjusting to caretaker manager Guus Hiddink.
Already under fire for a Champions League exit, on-going lacklustre play offensively and a sense of building malaise that is alienating the fan base, van Gaal brought further scrutiny on himself Wednesday with a blistering attack on the assembled media for published rumours regarding his job status. The ones he was most aggrieved by centered around the recently deposed Jose Mourinho being set to succeed van Gaal, since "The Special One" is eager to resume coaching despite the shambolic end to his Chelsea tenure earlier this month.
The Dutchman ended his five-minute press conference with a terse wish for happy holidays, capped his statements by telling reporters to "enjoy the wine and maybe a mince pie" and stormed out without answering questions.
Then came his serving of humble pie in United's 2-0 Boxing Day loss at Stoke City.
United allowed both goals in a seven-minute span of the first half, the first by Bojan Krkic that started with an awful back pass by Memphis and the second a thunderous strike by Marko Arnautovic from outside the area that tasted more like a spoonful of castor oil than anything a vineyard could produce.
The offence again looked lifeless, maybe more so with van Gaal leaving Wayne Rooney out of the first XI. He introduced the captain in the second half, but United (8-5-5) rarely tested Jack Butland. The result dropped them to sixth, ahead of promoted Watford on goal difference.
The post-match again fixated on van Gaal's status, with the stakes ratcheted ever higher. And this time, the Dutchman hinted at a potential exit - by his own making - with fewer pastry pairings.
"I can also quit by myself," he said when asked if he had received assurances about his future from the club hierarchy. "That is something I speak to (vice chairman) Ed Woodward (about) by himself - not with you (reporters).
"It is not always ... the club has to fire or sack me. Sometimes I do it by myself. I am the one who wants to speak first with the board of Manchester United and with my members of staff and players - and not with you."
United clearly lack title-contending credentials, which may haunt van Gaal the most considering this may be the most wide-open season in the Premier League era, one in which the upstarts have jostled their way to the top of the table alongside the perennials.
The numbers, both currently and in historical context, also speak quite loudly:
-- United's 29 points through 18 matches are their fewest in the Premier League era.
-- It's their first four-match losing streak of any kind since 1961, and a defeat Monday would mark the first five-game skid since Nov. 14-Dec. 12, 1936.
-- United are trying to avoid dropping four straight in league play for the first time since Dec. 22, 1978-Feb. 3, 1979, back in the First Division.
-- A loss or a draw would result in their first six-match winless spell in league play since going seven without a victory Sept. 19-Nov. 7, 1992, and their first eight-match run of futility across all competitions since Nov. 25, 1989-Jan. 1, 1990.
"We are on a horrible run, it's a horrible feeling, it hurts a lot and it's hard to take," vice captain Michael Carrick told Sky Sports according to United's official website. "We are not playing well enough as a squad, we take responsibility for that, it has to be a lot better.
"This is Manchester United we're playing for, it's a special club and it's a privilege to play here. We need to do better - it's as simple as that."
In the two matches since Mourinho's departure, Chelsea (5-4-9) have played markedly better. Hiddink's debut on the touchline, however, failed to produce a second straight win as the reigning champions scrambled for a 2-2 draw versus Watford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday and were denied three points when Oscar's 80th-minute attempt from the spot blazed over the bar.
Diego Costa bagged a brace - including the equaliser in the 65th minute - with both tallies in the style reminiscent of his 20-goal form from last season, but the striker will miss this contest after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season in the 88th minute.
"He's out (on Monday) which means we have to think how to solve that problem," Hiddink told Chelsea's official website. "It's a pity after a good performance, we have to solve that in 48 hours."
The defence continues to be a problem that will take far longer than 48 hours for the Dutchman to solve. It was the 11th time Chelsea have shipped at least two goals in league play, matching their combined total from the previous two seasons.
One of the potential solutions could be giving John Obi Mikel more playing time. Hiddink inserted the Nigeria international to start the second half at the expense of Cesc Fabregas, feeling Mikel gave the Blues "balance" as opposed to a glut of attacking midfielders.
Chelsea are 15th in the table on 19 points, but only two clear of the relegation zone. They are winless in their last six road matches (0-2-4) since a 3-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion on Aug. 23 and have kept just one clean sheet outside Stamford Bridge - a scoreless draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Nov. 29.
Manchester United are winless in their last eight (0-3-5) against Chelsea since a 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge on Oct. 28, 2012. That includes a four-match winless run (0-3-1) at home, and the teams drew 1-1 in last season's corresponding fixture on Oct. 26, 2014 as United equalised deep into second-half stoppage time.