LONDON (AFP) – Louis van Gaal’s resurgent Manchester United will have their eyes on third place in the Premier League table when they tackle Ronald Koeman’s sputtering Southampton at St Mary’s tomorrow morning (Tuesday, 4am).
After winning only three of their first seven league games, a run of four consecutive victories has taken United to within touching distance of early-season surprise package Southampton.
Koeman’s side shot up the table by winning eight of their nine games between late August and early November, but a draw at Aston Villa and losses to Manchester City and Arsenal extinguished their momentum.
Victory for United will lift them above Southampton into third place and allow Van Gaal’s team to close to within eight points of leaders Chelsea, who crashed to a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle United on Saturday.
It would also further galvanise United’s confidence ahead of next weekend’s home game with arch enemies Liverpool, but Van Gaal has warned his players not to get ahead of themselves.
“Southampton play better at this time and have more points at this moment than Liverpool, so I think it’s good that we have to play Southampton now,” the United manager said.
“I think they have a good squad, a lot of players that I know and who were offered to us. I think they are able to come in the top four, but that’s also because I believe in the management of Ronald Koeman and his brother (Erwin).”
Van Gaal’s relationship with his fellow Dutchman Koeman provides one of the sub-plots for Monday’s game.
Koeman, 51, successfully worked under 63-year-old Van Gaal at Barcelona, but the pair fell out at Ajax in 2004, when Koeman was coach and Van Gaal technical director.
Van Gaal described Koeman as “weak” in his autobiography, but the two men have refused to discuss their relationship in the build-up to the game, with both declaring the matter “private”.
Of more pressing concern for Koeman is the spate of injuries that has afflicted his side during their three-game winless run.
Midfielder Jack Cork has been ruled out for six weeks after damaging ankle ligaments during Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Arsenal, while centre-back Toby Alderweireld is a doubt after being forced off by a hamstring problem in the same game.
French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin is also doubtful after injuring his right adductor muscle in Southampton’s 3-0 loss at home to City, but winger Dusan Tadic has overcome a knock.
Koeman drew confidence from his side’s improved display at Arsenal, where they lost to an 89th-minute goal by Alexis Sanchez, but knows that in United they are likely to face another stern examination.
“It’s not an easy one because it’s Manchester United – a big name with big players – but it’s a challenge for us to try to win against them,” he said.
“We can’t change that we lost the last two games, but we have to understand that we played against big teams. We have to show our qualities.”
United will recall captain Wayne Rooney after he missed Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Stoke City with a knee problem, but record signing Angel di Maria is likely to miss out again with a hamstring problem.
Southampton’s old ground, The Dell, was the scene of some of United’s most chastening Premier League defeats, including a 6-3 demolition inspired by Matt Le Tissier in October 1996.
Earlier that year, United lost 3-1 after ditching their grey away kit at half-time because manager Alex Ferguson claimed his players were struggling to pick each other out against the crowd.
United have a better record at St Mary’s, however, having won seven and drawn one of the nine games they have played there.