Man United look to finish January in style but Spurs pose big test
January has been an excellent month for Manchester United, who have won all five of their games, scoring 12 goals and conceding none. Add to that the signing of Alexis Sanchez, who made an impressive debut at Yeovil on Friday night.
The Chilean forward stands at five-foot-six-inches and his presence, along with that of Angel Gomes, the five-foot-three-inch 17-year-old who made his FA Cup debut alongside Sanchez, it goes against the perceived wisdom that Jose Mourinho prefers his players to be giants. But United's manager has a habit of proving people wrong.
Mourinho, who has been true to the club's tradition of using homegrown players, extended his contract at Old Trafford last week. With that, as well as all going well on the pitch and Sanchez not joining Manchester City, it was just what United needed after a somewhat desperate December, which brought defeat in the derby, an end to the Carabao Cup defence and ended with three straight league draws.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan's departure for Arsenal isn't seen as a negative after his slump in form, while the likely exit of another summer 2016 signing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, won't be seen as a hindrance to progress either. The Swedish striker was a success and scored 28 goals last season - his finishes were often the best thing about watching United in the first half of 2016-17 while Paul Pogba took time to settle -- but top teams can't plan around a 36-year-old.
There has been more positive news. Liverpool losing their last two games against lowly Swansea and, in the FA Cup, West Brom raised a smile among fans, while Chelsea's recent stumbles have helped and Arsenal are now 11 points behind United, having also sold them their best player, and also out of the cup.
All of this matters because these clubs are United's main domestic rivals. Let's forget about Man City for a minute; they're the best team in England and are having their day in the sun, though they don't have a defence as tight as their cross-city rivals. The key is that United are getting stronger and are better placed to challenge the best teams, maybe even this season in the FA Cup or the Champions League.
There's one more rival for a top-four place: Tottenham Hotspur, who United play on Wednesday. It's the toughest game of the month -- the previous best-placed opponents were ninth-placed Everton -- and the recent record at Spurs is dire, with no wins in five attempts since 2012.
United were outclassed in their last three visits to White Hart Lane and Mauricio Pochettino's side have finished higher in each of the last three seasons, but United are eight points ahead after 24 league games of the 2017-18 campaign, which is another sign of the progress made under Mourinho and a further reason why the glass should be looking half-full, rather than half-empty.
One shame about Wembley, where United will play a league game for the first time on Wednesday night, is that the away side don't receive a bigger ticket allocation than a shade over 3,000 in a stadium which has a capacity of 90,000. No team's attendances have fluctuated as wildly as Tottenham's this season, but no team has a temporary home with so many seats.
Spurs' biggest crowd has been the 83,782 that they attracted for their Champions League victory against Real Madrid. That's the second-biggest attendance in world football this season after the 89, 514 that saw Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in Spain's Super Cup. On the flip side, though, just 36,168 were at Spurs' Carabao Cup tie against West Ham.
While their permanent home is being rebuilt with enough seats to make it the second-largest club stadium in England after Old Trafford, Spurs' biggest league crowd was the 80,827 that watched a game against Liverpool, but that number should be beaten on Wednesday and could even surpass the 83,260, who watched Manchester City vs. Stoke in 1934.
Just as Tottenham are attracting record crowds away from their normal home, so all of United's three highest "home" attendances -- each of them in excess of 80,000 plus -- came while playing at Man City's Maine Road in 1948 and 1949 while Old Trafford was being rebuilt, having been bombed during the Second World War. Two of those crowds were in the FA Cup, a competition which mattered then and which matters now to fans... and Mourinho.
This season's fifth-round draw gave United a tie at Huddersfield or Birmingham City and, based on competition rules, either opponent will give a larger allocation of tickets to away supporters than for a league game.
Huddersfield have already beaten United in the league this season, while a trip to Birmingham's St Andrew's would be like an throwback to the 1980s. Either way, United's players will have to be up for the occasion.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.