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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 16 January 2021

David Meyler: Man United can be best of the rest behind Liverpool in season like no other

In his first column of 2021, the ex-Premier League midfielder gives his thoughts and predictions on an extremely tight title race.

Man United striker Anthony Martial and Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish when the sides met in July.
Man United striker Anthony Martial and Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish when the sides met in July.
Image: Andrew Boyers/NMC Pool/PA Wire

EX-IRELAND INTERNATIONAL David Meyler has joined The42 as our new football columnist for this season.

Every Friday, the former Hull City and Sunderland midfielder will give expert insight and his predictions ahead of the weekend’s Premier League action, alongside the latest William Hill prices. 

In his latest piece, he examines Man United’s credentials as title challengers before looking ahead to Jose Mourinho’s face off with Marcelo Bielsa. 

Manchester United v Aston Villa, 8pm Friday 

It hasn’t even reached the midway point yet, but this season has been like no other. 

As we leave 2020 behind and begin a new year, the global pandemic continues to have an enormous impact on every facet of our lives and football is no exception. 

Games without fans, an even more congested fixture list than usual, utterly crazy scorelines and matches regularly being postponed due to positive Covid-19 tests are just some of the things we have become accustomed to over the past 10 months.  

One upside is how tight the Premier League title race has been. When Marcus Rashford’s 93rd-minute deflected effort earned Manchester United a 1-0 win over Wolves on Tuesday night, they moved to within two points of leaders Liverpool with 15 games played each. 

United now trail by three (with a game in hand) after the champions’ 0-0 draw with Newcastle and only seven points separates the Reds and ninth-placed Southampton, which is incredible. For comparison, the gap was 24 points around the same stage last year and 19 points two seasons ago. 

It suggests we’re shaping up for an exciting second half to the campaign, especially if you’re a neutral. 

The question is can United mount a serious title challenge under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? I personally think they will finish in the top four again, but when pundits make that prediction they are generally covering their arses, so I will go one better and say there’s no reason why they can’t do what they did under Jose Mourinho three seasons ago and secure second place.

The likes of Tottenham, Man City and Chelsea will have something to say about that, but United possess a squad good enough to go toe-to-toe with any of them and be the best of the rest behind Liverpool.

I feel the defending champions can kick on into another gear, despite their lengthy injury list. The draw with West Brom saw Joel Matip join fellow defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez on the sidelines and there is understandably talk of them buying a centre-half when this month’s transfer window opens.

I’ve been saying it for a while but I still expect Man City to go on a run at some stage. They have had a Covid-19 outbreak, which resulted in the Everton game being postponed, but in this busy period, that will also give Pep Guardiola time to reflect, to rest players and also to get Sergio Aguero’s sharpness up.

There have been calls here in England for a two-week ‘circuit break’, which would involve stopping matches temporarily due to the high return of positive coronavirus tests. That may not seem like a lot of time, but it would also allow players who are close to recovery an opportunity to get themselves right. As it stands, however, the idea doesn’t appear likely to happen.

On New Year’s Day, Man United entertain Aston Villa and I have been very impressed with Dean Smith’s men. I read that he sat down with his defenders and watched a lot of video footage of how Liverpool, Man City and Lazio defend, and whatever he is doing it has worked since they narrowly escaped relegation last term.

The signing of Emiliano Martinez was massive for them as he has probably been one of the best goalkeepers in the league this season. Ollie Watkins was a gamble for the money they paid, but he has led the line really well.

That said, I think United have a bit of momentum behind them and the elation of winning in the 93rd-minute should give them a further boost. While I expect United to claim three points, their biggest problem is that they still leak a few too many goals. I’m predicting it’ll be a 3-1 victory to the home side

Tottenham v Leeds United, 12.30pm Saturday

britain-soccer-premier-league Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa. Source: Tim Keeton

This game sees two coaches with contrasting styles face off. Jose Mourinho’s primary aim is keep a clean sheet and then nick a goal or two, while Marcelo Bielsa is a risk-taker whose attacking-minded tactics have drawn both praise and criticism.

Some will say the way Leeds approach matches is ludicrous but his philosophy got them to the Premier League and I think it will keep them up too. After they were hammered 6-2 by United, Bielsa came out in his press conference and gave a detailed breakdown of what went wrong. A week later, they go and demolish West Brom 5-0.

Their return to the top flight has just been fascinating to watch and I reckon Saturday’s meeting with Tottenham will be a high-scoring game, let’s go for 3-3.

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