Louis van Gaal back under scrutiny as Swansea visits Manchester United
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — It speaks volumes about Manchester United's current plight that a 0-0 draw at home against a team languishing just above the Premier League's relegation zone represents an encouraging sign of progress.
That's how far a mighty club has fallen, with the stalemate with Chelsea on Monday appearing to give some breathing space for under-pressure manager Louis van Gaal.
Lose to manager-less and relegation-threatened Swansea at Old Trafford on Saturday, though, and United will put Van Gaal even closer to the brink.
The record 20-time English champions are winless in their last eight games in all competitions, marking their worst run of form since 1990, and have collected only three points from their last six league games. Almost as worrying for United is that the team has scored only one goal in its last four home games.
Van Gaal may say he enjoys the backing of the United board, and has backtracked on previous comments that he could quit as manager, but there might be no way back if Swansea leaves Old Trafford with three points.
Put simply, 2016 has to start better than 2015 ended for the Dutchman.
"If anything, we are all playing for our own futures as well," United defender Chris Smalling said, with the team having fallen five places adrift of the Champions League places.
On paper, Swansea looks the ideal opponent for United to get back to winning ways: No manager following Garry Monk's firing on Dec. 9, one place above the bottom three, only one away win — against last-place Aston Villa — this campaign. Yet the Welsh club has won its last three games against United, all 2-1, including a home-and-away league double last season.
What Van Gaal must ensure is that United plays the same way as against Chelsea, when his players were more positive, took more risks with their passing and looked to play more forward. United's fans could see the team was trying and seemed to warm to Van Gaal and his players. But how long will the goodwill last?
"Inside of the club, the players are willing to fight for every meter, the manager is willing to fight, the members of staff are willing to fight and the board is very confident in the staff and the manager," Van Gaal said.
Above sixth-place United, the top four is separated by just four points heading into the second half of the season. It is the most unpredictable of title races, with surely few predicting that Leicester and Tottenham would be in the Champions League positions at the turn of the year.
Here's what else to look out for this weekend, as the grueling run of matches in the festive period comes to an end:
Arsenal playmaker Mesut Ozil has 16 assists so far this season, and is only four off the Premier League record held by Thierry Henry. Ozil must like his chances of getting even closer on Saturday when his table-topping side hosts Newcastle at Emirates Stadium.
Henry, one of Arsenal's greatest players, set the record in the 2002-03 season and believes it will get broken by Ozil.
"The guy is just amazing," Henry said. "Finally we're starting to see what type of player he can be . It's his vision, he always puts the ball where you need it. He sees everything, and when you play with a player like that, anything can happen at any time."
Arsenal is ahead of Leicester on goal difference, with Man City three points back in third place.
It seems Leicester hot-shots Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have some competition as the most lethal double act in the Premier League — Watford pair Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney.
Ighalo has scored in each of his last six games heading into Saturday's match against Man City at Vicarage Road, and finished 2015 with 30 league goals for the year — the best in English football.
Deeney, meanwhile, has six goals and four assists in his last 10 games.
They are the reason why promoted Watford is only two points off the European positions, and must be relishing the prospect of facing a City defense missing captain Vincent Kompany (calf).
Leicester's surprising title challenge was supposed to falter in a six-game run that included matches against Chelsea, Man City, Man United, Liverpool and Everton. Yet the team lost only once in that period and looks to be the real deal.
Things get slightly easier for Leicester in January, starting against Bournemouth on Saturday.
Also Saturday, it's: West Ham vs. Liverpool; Norwich vs. Southampton; Sunderland vs. Aston Villa; and West Bromwich Albion vs. Stoke. On Sunday, it's: Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea; and Everton vs. Tottenham.
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