Top four the target as United enter new year

Posted by Mark Payne

United's fixture at White Hart Lane on Dec. 1 saw two managers similarly under pressure. Since that 2-2 draw, Tottenham have garrotted Andre Villas-Boas while David Moyes has plugged away and United are now on a run of victories. Tim Sherwood is the latest man left grinning beneath Spurs' guillotine.

Daniel Levy is one of many who did not emerge from Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography with his reputation unscathed. It is all well and good being a tough negotiator, but he is becoming a man that nobody wants to deal with. It is hard to imagine United transferring players with Tottenham while Levy is in charge and he has started chewing his way through managers, too. Sherwood is the fourth in five years in north London.

- Moyes hoping to pressure leaders
- Van Persie a doubt; Rooney to be assessed

Spurs' new coach is undoubtedly a good bloke. But, despite not being to everybody’s taste, Villas-Boas was an exceptional talent. The current man may only be in the role because of his ability to be subservient to the chairman. Whether this is a recipe for success remains to be seen. I somewhat doubt it. Tottenham last won a trophy in 2008.

The only way to be bereft of pressure is to win the matches, of course. United have been doing that but only by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins. The 1-0 victory at Norwich last Saturday had fans peering through their hands, so lacklustre was some of the play.

Tottenham head north on the back of a convincing 3-0 victory over Stoke. Their results prior to that had been poor, but the players may well be motivated by the chance to impress their new boss. United should beware; the Londoners certainly have the personnel to cause damage and they recorded a victory at Old Trafford last season.

Robin van Persie remains unfit and Wayne Rooney will be assessed Wednesday morning. Without their No. 10, United looked completely out of ideas against Norwich and will struggle against Spurs. Shinji Kagawa was dreadful and when you are relying on Ashley Young to provide inspiration, things are grim.

On the plus side, Danny Welbeck is the division’s in-form striker and Javier Hernandez is always capable of burying any chances that come his way. Rafael and Antonio Valencia have been superb of late, but this could be a match too far for them. Nani may be given another opportunity before the vultures start their annual assessment in the January transfer window.

United will need between 13 and 14 victories from the next 19 games to guarantee a spot in the top four and next season’s Champions League. "At the moment we are not close enough for them [the top four] to feel our breath, so we have to get closer," manager David Moyes observed Tuesday morning. In order to achieve that, they need to win all their home games. By hook or by crook.

The squad’s best players are unavailable and Tottenham present a stern challenge. The test this New Year’s Day is one for the character of the team. If they pass, then 2014 can begin with optimism. A defeat would be calamitous. Moyes will look across at the opposing dugout and perhaps feel grateful he has more understanding employers than his rival. But missing out on Europe would test their patience to the limit.

Mark Payne is the author of “Fergie’s Last Stand,” now available in paperback.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.



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