Manchester United go into Saturday’s game vs. Leicester with all the pressure on them, even though their opposition are the current champions of England. A draw would not be good enough, given that it would probably mean United would end the weekend eight points behind Manchester City.
Having lost three games on the trot ahead of Wednesday’s night League Cup win at Northampton, Jose Mourinho is — in his own words — battling against “Einsteins,” who think that he is finished.
United’s new manager started brightly with four straight wins in all competitions but his side has since begun to resemble the shambolic Chelsea team we saw last season, as opposed to any of the title winners he has built during his career.
In the opposite dugout on Saturday will be a man once referred to by Mourinho as a “loser.” Last season, though, Claudio Ranieri won the title while Mourinho was sacked before the New Year — and after a loss at Leicester — after which he had to wait until the summer for the United job. He will hope his words don’t come back to haunt him again.
Meanwhile, the tide has been turning on Wayne Rooney for some time and many supporters will hope he is dropped. It’s becoming painful to watch the hard slog he endures every time he’s on the pitch as he misplaces passes and simple opportunities going begging; surely, sooner or later, Mourinho must opt to play the most expensive player in the world, Paul Pogba, in his best position and at Rooney’s expense.
If that is Mourinho’s plan, he certainly wasn’t giving anything away ahead of Saturday’s game when he defended his captain to the media. Mourinho acknowledged that he likes to protect his players, but surely even he is finding it difficult to deflect the latest barrage of criticism.
Rooney himself has said that he doesn’t pay any attention to “rubbish” criticism, which maybe suggests his poor form isn’t going to come to an end any time soon. If he can’t even see how badly he is playing and his manager also insists there’s no problem, then how likely is there to be a change?
The absence through injury of Anthony Martial means there is one fewer player competing with Rooney for a starting position on Saturday though. Mourinho confirmed the injury he sustained in the lead up to Watford’s first goal last Sunday will keep the Frenchman out, which further suggests that Martial was indeed fouled, despite referee Michael Oliver playing on at the time.
The forward every United fan is desperate to see, though, and maybe even more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been off the boil for a couple of games, is Marcus Rashford, who scored one and set up another at Northampton.
Since making his debut for United in February, he’s scored and assisted 14 goals, which is two more than Martial and double United’s next-most productive player, Juan Mata.
The fact Rashford was overlooked by Mourinho at the start of the season is still rather confusing but the manager appears to have learnt his lesson from the first half against Manchester City and, ever since, has been using Rashford more regularly.
You wouldn’t bet against the 18-year-old getting on the scoresheet againr, although it’s clear Leicester won’t be walkovers. Losing N’Golo Kante was a huge setback, given the hugely important role he played for his team last season, but Ranieri still has plenty of talented players dotted around his squad.
It’s probably also worth remembering that, even before last season’s title run, Leicester still did well against United. A crushing 5-3 defeat at the King Power Stadium in September 2014 will long live in the memory, as Louis van Gaal’s side threw away a 3-1 lead with less than half an hour to play.
Back then, Vardy was an unknown with a bad haircut and propensity to go down easily. Though he has since won a league title winner’s medal, finished as the second highest-scorer in the division and played for England, United supporters aren’t in a hurry to forget his behaviour that day.
Eric Bailly was named Man of the Match when he faced Vardy in the Community Shield last month, so will be hoping for a repeat performance. It may be Chris Smalling that partners him at the back though, rather than Daley Blind, who again has received criticism that he isn’t a centre-half and shouldn’t be playing in that position.
Nobody expected Leicester to repeat the success of last season so their poor start, which has seen them claim seven points from five games, doesn’t bring about too much pressure. By contrast, United started the campaign as one of the favourites for the title; Mourinho better act quickly if he’s to restore those aspirations.