Manchester United-Stoke City Preview
Their current manager is agitated, the players are largely frustrated and the most prominent unemployed manager in all of Europe might be ready to swoop in and save the season.
Such is life for reeling Manchester United heading into Boxing Day.
Losers of three straight and in danger of going winless in seven consecutive matches over all competitions for the first time in 23 years, dysfunctional United hope to stop the rot Saturday against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium.
Whether in the top division, Champions League or League Cup, Manchester United (8-5-4) have won three times in 13 matches since Oct. 21. All three of their defeats during that span have come in the last three games.
It began with a 3-2 loss at VfL Wolfsburg that knocked United out of the Champions League, followed by consecutive 2-1 setbacks to promoted bottom-half table dwellers Bournemouth and Norwich City.
Fifth in the table, the Red Devils have scored five times while going 0-3-3 since a three-game winning streak Nov. 3-21. The Premier League's most successful franchise hasn't gone seven straight (0-5-2) overall without a victory since Sept. 19-Nov. 7, 1992.
"We're not used to not winning games, everyone in the dressing room is a winner and we want to get back to winning ways," embattled coach Louis van Gaal said. "That's what we're trying to do."
For the moment, United will do it under the guidance of the 64-year-old Dutchman, who reportedly needs to win at Stoke (6-5-6) and against Chelsea on Monday at Old Trafford in order to keep his job.
The irony is that recently sacked Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is the oddsmakers' favourite to succeed van Gaal.
''I think I was already sacked,'' van Gaal said during Wednesday's brief press conference that lasted four minutes and 58 seconds before he walked out. ''I read I have been sacked.
"(I have read Mourinho) was here already."
Van Gaal and key players such as Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata met following last Saturday's home loss to Norwich. Topics ranged from van Gaal's training methods to his game-day tactics.
"I held meetings with the players with my members of staff, I hold a Christmas lunch, I did a speech and I feel the warmth and support of everybody in (here)," said van Gaal, who is halfway through his three-year deal with United.
While reports of dissension among van Gaal's side continue to surface, some of his players have taken the high road to ease the angst among the United fan base.
"Obviously everyone is disappointed with the last few games but I've always said the team spirit we have is fantastic," midfielder Ashley Young told the club's official website. "There are always smiles on faces and all of us want to put things right and that's the way it has to be. There is no player who doesn't want to go out there and win.
"Everyone has that winning mentality and wants to turn things around, and that's what everyone will be looking to do in the next game."
United last dropped three in a row in league play in April. They went 5-1-0 at Stoke before losing 2-1 there on Feb. 1, 2014, and drawing at 1 last New Year's Day.
Despite United's recent troubles, Stoke manager Mark Hughes knows better to believe his side is catching a Boxing Day break.
"They are a huge club and they have a very good squad of players there," Hughes said. "I have been asked whether this is a good time to play them but I am always wary of that because these type of clubs more often than not bounce back emphatically.
"We are certainly taking nothing for granted because we are fully aware as to how difficult a challenge they will pose to us on Boxing Day."
After posting consecutive home victories over Chelsea and Manchester City, the Potters fell 2-1 there to Crystal Palace last Saturday. Stoke, whose 14 goals are tied for the fewest in the league, has managed five and yielded six during a 3-2-3 stretch.
Marko Arnautovic has scored three of those goals and Bojan Krkic was responsible for Stoke's other two.
Rooney has one goal in nine matches over all competitions, and none in five at Stoke.