By Piers Barber
Manchester United are in the midst of their most depressing run of form for years, but Tuesday’s Cardiff game may well turn out to be one of the most joyous Old Trafford occasions of the season so far. Here are four reasons why:
1. The return of the baby-faced assassin
A whole host of players who played under the great Sir Alex Ferguson have gone into management following the conclusion of their playing careers, but few will receive as much adoration upon their return to Old Trafford as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United’s former baby-faced assassin who unforgettably notched the famous last minute winner in the 1999 Champions League Final. Solskjaer has enjoyed a thoroughly encouraging start to his management career to date, managing Molde FK to their first league title in the club’s history in 2011, and retaining the prize in his second year. Now, the Norwegian has been entrusted to successfully negotiate a relegation fight at Cardiff. “I looked at the fixture list when I took the job at Cardiff to see when we played United, of course I did,” Ole said in a recent interview. Despite United’s notable recent transfer activity, he may well be on the receiving end of the warmest cheers of the night on Tuesday.
2. The introduction of The Chosen Juan
The images that emerged on Saturday of United’s record signing arriving at the club – off a helicopter, in a slick suit, complete with an elegant pocket square and warm grin – prompted a giddy response from United fans and arguably constituted one of the club’s finest moments of the season to date. Mata’s arrival is a timely one: a world class footballer, he has almost single-handedly eradicated escalating fears that United have lost their ability to attract star names and heightened the belief that the club may well return to their former championship-winning ways at some stage in the not too distant future. The effect of his arrival on the spirit of the club’s fan base has been extraordinary, and one can only imagine the effect it has had on the morale of the squad overall. All being well, Mata will make his debut for the Reds on Tuesday. His incisive passing, impeccable technique and all round classy character are guaranteed to take United’s play up several notches.
3. The possible return of United’s current heroes
When considered calmly, it hardly comes as a surprise that United have been suffering so badly in recent times: they have, after all, been missing their two best players for vast swathes of the current 2012/13 campaign. Yet the end of this spell of bad luck with injuries looks set for an imminent conclusion, with Robin van Persie hinting via a tweet to celebrate United’s latest signing that he may return to the team against Cardiff. Last season’s top Premier League goalscorer has not featured for United since aggravating a thigh injury against Shakhtar Donetsk in December, and although Danny Welbeck has at times proved an able deputy, his team have sorely missed the Dutchman’s finishing and ability to turn a game on its head with a single moment of sublime skill. Elsewhere, although his future at remains a complex issue, it is undeniable that Wayne Rooney has been United’s best player this season, and that the team have missed his drive and goals substantially in recent months. He too may make his return from a groin injury against Cardiff. Marouane Fellaini, out since December following wrist surgery, may also make a return to action.
4. United should manage a comfortable win
A healthy relationship exists between United and Cardiff, already the home of former Red Fraizer Campbell and the likely destination for Fabio and Wilfried Zaha in the coming days. This is no moment for sentimentality, though, and, fortunately for a United team that has endured a torrid start tor 2014 under David Moyes, a home fixture against the Bluebirds should – in theory, at least – result in a comfortable victory. Cardiff currently sit bottom of the Premier League, having scored fewer goals than any team apart from Crystal Palace. United could only manage a draw in the away fixture back in November, and limply dropped out of the League Cup with defeat to Sunderland last week, but a United win on Tuesday still seems the odds-on favourite result: Mata’s arrival, the news that Rooney looks set to sign a new contract, and the return of some of United’s other key players should easily be sufficient to motivate the team into putting on a real show for an eager Old Trafford crowd.
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