Manchester United host Tottenham Hotspur on Monday at Old Trafford (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) in a perfectly timed litmus test for exactly where the title hopefuls are at.
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Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino have very different playing philosophies but it is Mourinho’s personal trophy cabinet which is bursting at the seams compared to Pochettino’s.
Things can change very quickly in this game, so don’t underestimate the importance of this early-season clash
For United this game is all about showing a reaction to their shock defeat at Brighton last Sunday, while Spurs will lock to put down a marker as their once young team now know they must deliver a sustained and serious title challenge.
Below is a look at the key battles each team must win to have a chance at grabbing victory.
Eric Bailly v. Harry Kane
You’d have to say that Kane must be licking his chops in anticipation given the way United’s entire backline, and especially Bailly, performed at Brighton last week. The Ivory Coast international “had a ‘mare” with mistimed challenges to give away penalty kicks, rushed clearances and just generally looking out of sorts. He is meant to be United’s best center back and after a summer of Mourinho clearly wanting to sign a new central defender, the players he still has at that position can be forgiven for playing with a lack of confidence. As for Kane, well, he finally did it. His first-ever goal in August for Tottenham (at the 15th attempt) means he is off and running earlier than usual in the Premier League but there’s no denying he looks more jaded than usual given his big summer for England as the leading goalscorer at the 2018 World Cup.
Fred v. Dele Alli
Watch out for this battle. Fred has already shown he is a combative chap and the new recruit from Shakhtar Donetsk will no doubt aim to win Dele Alli up wherever and however he can. Both players will be walking a tightrope. Alli has a few critics to silence after his mixed display at the World Cup but has started the season well. His new goal celebration(s) have increased his cult hero status but delivering big goals in big moments must be his aim this season after somewhat of a down year in 2017-18. Expect both of these players to get a yellow card, at least, as Alli’s flicks are met by trips by Fred. A tasty clash awaits.
Paul Pogba v. Eric Dier
Another key battle in midfield as Pogba will aim to put in a dominant display after he admitted he had the wrong attitude after the defeat at Brighton last week. That is incredible honesty from the United skipper but it’s just not good enough from Pogba. He has scored in each of United’s first two games of the season and his performances in France’s World Cup win seem to have increased his confidence levels further. He now needs consistency and he needs to win the midfield battle against Mr. Consistent, Eric Dier. Yes, he didn’t have the best World Cup in his cameo roles for Jordan Henderson but Dier is solid and will shield Spurs’ back three as well as dropping into the defense when he needs to. His importance to the way Tottenham operate is undoubted but it will be intriguing to see if Mousa Dembele is his midfield partner for this clash given the Belgian midfielder linked with a move away to Europa in the final days of their transfer window.
Romelu Lukaku v. Toby Alderweireld/Jan Vertonghen
An all Belgian battle will perhaps be the key one in defining the outcome of this clash. Lukaku was superb for Belgium this summer, scoring four goals but making plenty more with his clever movement and passing. Alderweireld and Vertonghen will know all his tricks and the experienced duo will be given the key role in shackling Lukaku as Davinson Sanchez cleans up in-behind with his superior pace. Alderweireld still not signing a contract doesn’t seem to have hurt his standing with Pochettino, at least right now, and that’s a great thing for Spurs as he looked likely to join United for much of the summer. Lukaku has quietly gone about his business since he joined United and having the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Pogba running off his flicks will be key for Mourinho’s gameplan.