For a club playing at record-setting pace, the middle of January might seem an unreasonably early time to be plotting and planning the season's stretch run. But for Manchester United, especially after what happened last time against Spurs, making a statement about the title run-in might be this weekend's primary objective.
That's apart from winning, of course, which would be more than United accomplished against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in September. But with a win, there would also be a statement. And with the champions chasing, it might be one of United's most definitive match of the league campaign so far.
Just think of it as Statement Sunday in the English Premier League, with the main event on tap for tea time at White Hart Lane.
More than three months have passed since Spurs shocked United with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. Since then, the Red Devils have stormed to the top of table with 14 wins in 16 matches, 43 points from a possible 48.
That run has set Sir Alex Ferguson's men on course for a record season. Through 22 matches, United have collected 55 points. Extrapolated out to a full season, that would mean a total of 95 points, the same as Chelsea's record-setting 2004-05 season.
That 55-point haul represents United's best total in a top-flight season through 22 matches (via USA Today). But as Gabriele Marcotti writes at ESPN FC, there remains a sense that United haven't shown their best this campaign.
All those early season comebacks are not what we usually associate with a dominant club. Nor do teams with a defense as statistically leaky as United's—they've conceded as many as Sunderland and more than the likes of West Ham, Stoke and Swansea—usually win games at such a pace.
The thing is, on paper at least, Untied can get better. A lot better. And that's the scary part.
Marcotti is correct in both cases. United have conceded an alarming 29 goals through 22 games, including three against Tottenham, Reading and Newcastle United, and two each against Fulham, Stoke, Southampton, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Manchester City. In comparison, Chelsea's 2004-05 team conceded 15 times all season.
But United can improve both offensively and defensively. When the offense has clicked this season, no English team has been able to keep up. And once the injury-hit defense finally regains full strength, it should improve.
This Sunday's match, against a team that won at Old Trafford last fall, represents an excellent opportunity to show improvement in both areas.
As veteran defender Rio Ferdinand told talkSPORT:
Jonny Evans has done fantastically well when Vidic has been out. Chris Smalling has done well when he has come in and so has Phil Jones.
We’ve got players who we know that the manager can be confident about putting in and I think that’s more important than anyone one of us as individuals.
Tottenham, meanwhile, have been nearly as active in front of goal. Under first-year manager Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs have scored 39 and conceded 27. Some inconsistent form has seen Spurs beat United but lose 5-2 at Arsenal and 1-0 at home to Wigan.
Currently fourth, Tottenham know a victory would consolidate their advantage over struggling Arsenal. But in United, they'll face an equally motivated team.
In addition to atoning for last September's surprising loss to Spurs at Old Trafford, United will be looking to maintain their lead over the chasing champions at Manchester City.
With a home match against Fulham on Saturday, Manchester City should be expected to win. That makes Sunday's showdown between Spurs and United a valuable chance for the defending champions to make up some of their seven-point deficit.
But not if United make a January statement of stretch-run intent.
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