Had it not been for the surprising arrival of a diminutive, yet incredibly talented, Spaniard, tonight’s Premier League at Old Trafford would have been all about one man and one man only, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returns to the ground where he so often found the net during his playing days.
As Ole returns as a visitor, there are few doubts that he’ll be greeted to a raucous reception for Old Trafford does not forget his heroes – unless they wash up on Merseyside and kiss the Liverpool badge, that is – and the Norwegian, for his dedication to the club first and foremost, deserves a hero welcome.
Ole’s reception, however, is likely to be eclipsed by the one that will welcome the announcement of Juan Mata’s name, were United’s club record signing to start or be included on the bench tonight, after completing his £37.1m move from Chelsea and being unveiled as Manchester United player on Monday.
Among the excitement that surrounded the Spaniard’s arrival – which, by the way, was totally justified, given the shambolic transfer windows we had grown used to over the last couple of years – one could be forgiven for thinking that Cardiff will be nothing more of a formality for United.
Unfortunately, while securing Mata’s services has undoubtedly lifted the fans and players’ morale alike – not to mention boosted the Betfair odds for United qualifying for Champions League football – it is now time for United to translate the feel-good factor onto the pitch, six days on from the gutless performance that saw United bow out from the Capital One Cup at the penultimate stage.
With two defeats in the last three league games the onus is on United to deliver, particularly given that Cardiff – who have usurped Sunderland’s tag of “United elsewhere”, given that Ole Solskjaer can count on Magnus Eikrem, Mats Moeller Daehli, Wilfried Zaha and Fabio – languish at the bottom of the table, having lost five of their last six league encounters.
The Bluebirds – or red dragons, according to that absolute numpty of an owner that rules over them – are however just a point away from safety and created plenty of problems to United back in Wales, when the Reds surrendered a late equaliser and threw away two points.
With Liverpool and Everton going head to head in the Merseyside derby – remember to turn the volume down on your TV sets, if you don’t want to have your eardrums lacerated by thousands of highly-pitched scousers screaming at each other – and Spurs hosting City tomorrow, United have the opportunity to close the gap that separates them from fourth place.
To do so, however, United will have to shake off the fear that crippled them since the turn of the year, when the Reds already poor form has turned even worse, inducing many people to die in their sleep as they were treated to the 5468th sideways pass between Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley.
Mata’s arrival is likely to shake things up, with the Spaniard in line for a first start, while Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Marouane Fellaini have also all returned to training.
Were Mata to make his Manchester United debut, it’ll be interesting to see where David Moyes will deploy him – in the hole behind the main striker, or alongside Rooney and Januzaj in a trio full of creativity and guile behind either Robin Van Persie or Danny Welbeck?
With Michael Carrick out, Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, Darren Flecther and Phil Jones are in contention for two spots in midfield, given Fellaini might not be immediately risked from the start, while Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are expected to continue as centre-back partnership.
United have got the off-pitch lift they so desperately needed, here’s hoping they’ll now finally deliver the goods on it.