In the three seasons that Rafa Benitez has managed United from start to finish there have been lots of similarities. Players getting better as the season has gone on (hello Mo Diame, Ayoze Perez & Paul Dummett).  Success on the pitch and notable performances and victories in the biggest games (Brighton and Huddersfield away in the Championship and then Huddersfield and Southampton at home in the Prem).  There’s also been that feeling of dread after the opening two games each season.

In the Championship it was losing to two sides that finished 19th and 20th respectively the season before in Fulham and Huddersfield (though they both finished in the play offs that season and are both now opponents this season for us in the Premier League).  Last season it was losing to Spurs at home and Huddersfield away without having a shot of note. We’re here again having picked up one point from two games with a tricky run of fixtures to come.

There are differences of course. United deserved to lose neither of their opening two in the Championship but also failed to perform in both.  Different refereeing last season could have resulted in different outcomes. This season we should have probably taken 4 points from the two games just gone but haven’t.

What comes next, in game three, has been more important.  Last season it was a lovely day in the sun as United hammered a limp West Ham 3 0.  Two years ago it was Reading (who turned out to be a handy side as well) who were dispatched by a Dwight Gayle inspired United four goals to one.

Referee got dogs abuse from the Gallowgate for disallowing this goal. Sorry, ref.

Each game was crucial and set the side on a positive run of results.  2016 saw us win the third game and then another five in a row, the highlight being the 6 0 win at QPR (it should have been 10).  2017 saw another two consecutive wins after West Ham (at Swansea and at home to Stoke) – these wins being crucial as we slumped in the autumn that followed.

Wins in the third games were important on both occasions- in the Championship in front of a midweek crowd of 48,000 the feel good factor under the manager rushed back to the support and set us up for a crucial run of games against top of the league (at the time) Bristol City and Brighton.  Last season it was the fact we were able to beat comfortably Swansea and Stoke, both of whom went down.

Who knew the Joselu that missed chance after chance in games would be the Joselu we liked best

This season we have Chelsea in our third game.  There are still tickets left on public sale.  There is little debate and appetite for the game, despite hammering largely the same group of players just 3 months ago.  Even if United were to win this game, it’s unlikely we’ll see a string of victories in the games that follow considering the following week we’re at documentary stars Manchester City.

It’s been noted on social media that it would be just like United to go and beat Chelsea after putting in that performance at Cardiff which has resulted in such angst.   The third game this time could be as important or it could be irrelevant as Rafa works with ‘the group’ and improves them as the season progresses. Points will come against ‘lesser’ sides but who wants to go into Arsenal at home with no wins on the board or worse?

If United can perform and get at a Chelsea side who look suspect defensively then a lot can change for the fanbase.  Lose and lose badly the same people who claimed we wouldn’t make the play offs after defeat to Huddersfield and the same people who proclaimed relegation (again, after Huddersfield) will likely be crying the same song as the fanbase starts to panic. Rather than Dennis Wise getting the scorn it’ll be back to Kennedy and his team mates getting grief on their social media channels.

Photo credit: Paul Mitchell

So we could really do with winning this one, or getting a deserved draw. I think United should have drawn the game against Spurs and clearly should have beaten Cardiff.  It’s the sign of a struggling team that fails to take what it deserves from games.

You could of course look at the games and apply the logic that Rafa is still not playing his best XI (for whatever reason – my take being that the people in charge waited as long as possible to make the key signings to save £200kish on wages so the players aren’t yet ready to play) and that there are four players who will strengthen this first XI.

Either way, let’s hope United get up and running again in their third game, for the third time.

Alex Hurst

Follow Alex on twitter here

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