Man United resurgence must continue with win vs. Watford at Old Trafford
The position in which Manchester United find themselves is not one many would have predicted less than a fortnight ago, when they lost 2-1 at FC Midtjylland. The injuries to Wayne Rooney, David de Gea and, later, Chris Smalling and Anthony Martial only compounded the misery.
After he managed to escape a dismal run of results in December with his job intact, there were predictions that Louis van Gaal would be given his marching orders sooner rather than later. However, in the absence of the club's key players, United went on to book their place in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup, the next round in the Europa League, thanks to a 5-1 victory, and they beat Arsenal with a team of kids.
It was fairly terrifying for fans when they saw Michael Carrick and Daley Blind lined up in the centre of defence, knowing the two slowest players in the squad would be faced with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. The fact that all the outfield players United had on the bench were academy products, two of whom would make their debuts that day against Arsenal, was all the more worrying. Yet these talented youngsters -- in particular Marcus Rashford, Memphis Depay and Guillermo Varela -- somehow put in brilliant shifts for their team in the same game.
After Rashford scored twice in his debut, there were worries that he was a flash in the pan. Not many would have hoped Martial would still be unavailable for Arsenal. Although only time will tell whether Rashford is the real deal, his scoring two more goals for his boyhood club -- this time against Petr Cech -- showed the boy has bags of potential. However, United fans will be familiar with this feeling, as they hear other supporters question whether Van Gaal has to get sacked after weeks of demanding it.
When United went top of the table at the end of November, or even when they beat Liverpool at Anfield, the desperation for their situation to improve meant all common sense went out the window, replaced by belief in the impossible. Each time, it was followed with huge disappointment, whether that be eight games without a win or a late defeat to Southampton at home.
On Wednesday, United will face Watford, who have just about held on in the top half of the table. Their latest form betters some of the clubs ahead of them, including Manchester City and Stoke, and they have pretty much a fully fit squad. United, by contrast, are at their bare bones at the moment, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing if the healthy players are judged on recent results.
Yet for all the good feeling generated the past few games, there is a sense that United are ready to undo all their good work and fail to pick up all three points in midweek. A win would see them go equal on points with Manchester City, though if Manuel Pellegrini's side beat Liverpool at Anfield and win their game in hand, the gap could again stretch to six points. A draw or a defeat could see United slide down to sixth if West Ham manage to beat Tottenham Hotspur at home.
Anthony Martial and Matteo Darmian have been declared fit to play, but we've yet to see whether they will replace Rashford and Varela, who have more than filled the boots of the players for whom they have been filling in. Given how many games United have played recently -- an impressive five in 13 days, including Watford -- it probably makes sense to rotate players wherever possible.
United have a string of more difficult fixtures ahead, including two games against Liverpool in the Europa League, a visit to the Etihad to play City and home dates with Spurs and West Ham. Dropping points in some of those Premier League fixtures would be forgivable, but to keep the top-four dream alive, United have to beat Watford on Wednesday.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.