This will sound odd, considering the stages on which Manchester United play, but Saturday’s match at Huddersfield Town and the modest John Smith’s Stadium is arguably our biggest of 2018 so far.
I understand that is a debatable claim to make, but just hear me out will you?
In the context of the campaign, with Manchester City 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League, our best chances of success are represented by the Emirates FA Cup and UEFA Champions League. As you'll no doubt know, our next two fixtures are in those very competitions: away to Huddersfield and then Sevilla.
A trip to West Yorkshire and an industrial town that gave birth to rugby league is ordinarily a low-key occasion. But, for me at least, it is currently more important than our impending return to Europe’s big stage in picturesque Seville, Spain’s fourth largest city, because the repercussions of our performance and result in Kirklees will impact on the latter.
Win that fifth-round tie and the squad’s form, morale and confidence is immediately improved at a perfect time, potentially triggering a domino effect at an influential period in the campaign. Lose it and suddenly we are out of the FA Cup, shaken and facing a team that hasn’t lost at home in Europe this season, and held Liverpool to a couple of score draws in the group stage.
Huddersfield is a big test - make no mistake - and one that provides United with a chance to showcase the lessons that have been learned since losing to the Terriers back on 21 October – even if that result was partially avenged by this month’s 2-0 win in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford.
Club legend Paddy Crerand often states how a team’s confidence and momentum can be just as important as quality, particularly at the business end of the season, and the 1968 European Cup winner acknowledged the magnitude of this week during Monday night’s MUTV phone-in.
Treble winner David May, a guest on that show, also spoke about the difficulty of facing smaller clubs away from home.
“Newcastle's desire and passion to stay in the Premier League was the difference on Sunday,” he said.
“They were fighting for their lives and you knew they would be up for it. Come Saturday and Huddersfield, they will be fighting for it as well because it's another big game in the FA Cup. As soon as that whistle blows we have got to match them and, if we don't, then we will get caught out. Straight from the kick off, we have to be at it. When I was at Blackburn Rovers, I loved playing against United because every single one of my team-mates was up for it 100 per cent, with a desire to run and tackle a bit harder. We have to realise that.”
A big positive for United is the lack of a midweek fixture which is allowing Jose Mourinho to work on the training ground, focusing on tactics and the minutiae of his approach. The manager has admitted United must
“fight” to bounce back and his attitude must be adopted by the players this weekend.
Huddersfield, inconveniently, are on a high after ending their five-match losing streak in the league with a superb 4-1 home win over Bournemouth, which Terriers manager David Wagner described as
“one of the performances of the season” before calling on his players to replicate it against the Reds.
The United squad is thankfully talking a good game after the defeat at Newcastle, expressing sentiments stuffed with more purpose, drive and determination than the Winter Olympics. Phil Jones was typically honest in his post-match interviews at St James’ Park and admitted
“we have to improve”, before Juan Mata wrote in his blog about the anger that is fuelling the squad this week.
“The truth is, after losing an away game, you think a lot about it on your way back home,” the Spaniard explained on Monday morning.
“You remember every play, every moment, and you try to change the outcome but obviously that’s impossible - you can’t turn back time. The only way to carry on is to turn all this rage into a desire to win and work for the next game.”
The very fact that the nicest man in football is raging only highlights the importance of this week, and a fixture that could inspire the success of this campaign.
Huddersfield Town v Manchester United kicks off on Saturday at 17:30 GMT.