Manchester United appear to averted the crisis that was developing in the wake of a recent run of three successive defeats, but there is still plenty of room for improvement at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho questioned the personality of his players after they lost 3-1 at Watford two weekends ago and the Portuguese displayed some of the haunted look that characterised his fateful last few months at Chelsea.
However, three straight wins across three competitions since have gone some way to lightening the mood and last Saturday’s 4-1 Premier League win over champions Leicester was particularly emphatic, and means that United sit in the top six as they prepare to host win-less Stoke on Sunday.
Thursday’s 1-0 Europa League group-stage win over Ukrainian minnows Zorya Luhansk was rather less impressive, but it did at least demonstrate that Mourinho’s ability to dig out scrappy victories appears to have returned following his troubles at Chelsea last season.
An ability to grind out positive results under pressure may be vital, given that United have testing league trips to Liverpool and Chelsea during October, as well as a Europa League meeting with Turkish club Fenerbahce.
“Every game is massive,” Mourinho said. “Watford was massive. We lost three points against Watford. No different to the three points we lost against Manchester City. So every game for me is important. You’re right, we have some big opponents in October. But that’s also a motivation.”
The biggest question Mourinho has faced since taking charge at Old Trafford in May is what to do about Wayne Rooney.
There is little doubt that the England captain’s powers are on the wane and his performances this season have been poor.
Mourinho has responded by using Rooney only as a substitute for the last two matches. The forward was given just seven minutes against Leicester, but had slightly longer on Thursday and did at least claim an inadvertent assist, with his mis-hit shot bouncing up for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to head in.
Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford have taken the three attacking roles behind Ibrahimovic for the last two matches, and may well be selected again to face Stoke, although Anthony Martial is another contender.
Midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan is back in training after a thigh problem, although defender Luke Shaw will be assessed after missing Thursday’s match because of illness.
With a relatively stable squad to pick from, Mourinho’s concern is ensuring that Stoke do not catch his team by surprise.
He said: “I’m sure that in the end of May, they will be in the ‘Stoke area’ in the table. They will be there. The table is just a moment, just a period, and they will get over it for sure.”
– Shawcross v Zlatan –
Stoke are still looking for a first victory of the season while their captain, Ryan Shawcross, will come face to face with the man who wrecked his one chance in international football.
Ibrahimovic scored four goals for Sweden against England in 2012 including three during Shawcross’s 15-minute appearance as a substitute.
That was the defender’s only international appearance to date and Stoke manager Mark Hughes has called on his skipper to prove a point at Old Trafford.
“He’s had to carry those moments for a very long time,” said Hughes.
“Clearly it’s affected people’s view of him as a potential international on a more regular basis.
“It’s an opportunity to maybe put to bed a few issues and ghosts from the past — let’s hope he has a good performance.
“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t, he’s getting back to form.
“But clearly Zlatan is an outstanding player who’s come to these shores late in his career but it doesn’t look like any of his talent has waned.
“Ryan’s a big personality and a big player. I think he’ll relish the opportunity. Why wouldn’t he?