Reds look for top four foothold against struggling Bournemouth
There were few who failed to notice José Mourinho’s notably subdued demeanour as his players celebrated their first trophy of the season. The Manchester United manager stood alone on the Wembley turf, displaying almost no emotion. Perhaps his team’s performance in last Sunday’s EFL Cup Final against Southampton was not to his liking; maybe he really is as miserable as some claim, or perhaps he had the look of a man who knows his job is only just beginning.
Mourinho’s side returns to league action against AFC Bournemouth at Old Trafford tomorrow, and the manager will have at least rested easy in the knowledge that his side had almost a full week between fixtures for the first time since January. The Portuguese specified two days off for his players after a pulsating final against the Saints in which several of them looked jaded and in need of a short break. It is easy to claim that footballers should need little respite between matches, but the mental fatigue of constantly rousing motivation will affect most, regardless of their weekly wage.
"There were few who failed to notice Mourinho’s subdued demeanour as his players celebrated. The United manager stood alone on the Wembley turf, displaying almost no emotion. "
Last weekend was a memorable occasion for the club, and, performance aside, had several hallmarks of vintage United. Goals, drama, controversy and a late surge were present in abundance as the Reds delivered a first major trophy at the club for Mourinho. The cup triumph, however, must be treated as small beginnings if the club is to return to its former glory. The boss’ post-match celebrations, or lack thereof, betrayed an acute understanding of this fact. Sunday’s victory was one to be savoured, but this is still a long way off being considered a successful season for the Reds. In fact, last week’s great escape was largely down to one man.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic dragged his fellow Reds over the line at Wembley, but it was hard to hide from United’s performance for large portions of the game. With a full fortnight to prepare, Southampton looked sharp and well-drilled, playing through the Reds’ midfield and exposing a struggling Marcos Rojo at left-back. Manolo Gabbiadini had an early goal wrongly ruled out early on before bagging two that did count to cancel out United’s lead.
For all its endeavour, however, Claude Puel’s side did not possess a player of Ibrahimovic’s class. The veteran Swede has dug United out of many a hole this campaign, despite accusations of wastefulness throughout the season. Zlatan’s record speaks for itself, but it is perhaps his insatiable appetite for the game at 35 which is most impressive. It is a trait sorely lacking at Old Trafford these past few years.
Such is his hunger, there is little doubt that Ibrahimovic will take the field for the visit of Bournemouth. Victory for United will see it break into the top four, at least for a few hours. Liverpool and Arsenal meet at Anfield in tomorrow’s late kick off, and regardless of the result United would drop back to fifth.
Mourinho will ensure that his side’s sole focus is on overcoming Eddie Howe’s men, who come to Old Trafford without a win in 2017. These are the games which blighted United’s early season record, with goalless draws against Burnley and West Ham United to blame for the team’s extended stay in sixth place.
The Reds opened their Premier League account at Bournemouth back in August, with goals from Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic sealing a 3-1 victory. Mourinho’s men have notched three times in only four of 24 fixtures since, despite having the third highest amount of shots in the league. Those statistics help to explain why United has found itself languishing outside the Champions League places, but there is a definite sense that the team has turned a corner in recent weeks – epitomised by a sixteen game unbeaten run in the league. Opportunities to capitalise on rivals dropping points have not always been taken this season, United must not pass up another tomorrow as the Cherries arrive in Manchester.
Bournemouth looked almost assured of ongoing Premier League status at the turn of the year, looking comfortable in the top half of the table, 10 points clear of the relegation zone. But a winless year to date has resulted in the Cherries being dragged into an increasingly crowded scrap for survival. Having been involved in some of the most memorable fixtures of the season against both Liverpool and Arsenal, it would be a shame for such an entertaining team to succumb to the drop. However, unless Eddie Howe’s men can arrest their alarming slump then Championship football may well beckon next season.
Despite the club’s loss of form, Bournemouth are still an outfit who, as noted, have caused some of the top sides problems this season. Hailed as one of the brightest young managers in the English game, Howe kept the Cherries in the Premier League last season, despite many predicting that their all-action style would result in a swift return to the second-tier. Howe’s side is quick, combative, and most importantly, resilient. United may find Bournemouth easier to play against than some of the more conservative sides who have visited Old Trafford this season, but the visitors certainly should not be taken lightly.
Some have predicted the meeting of Jack Wilshere and Ander Herrera to be a key exchange in tomorrow’s game, with both players not known for shying away from a battle. Wilshere was tipped to shine as a big fish in a small pond at Bournemouth, but the Arsenal loanee has not set the heather alight at Dean Court, failing to score and registering only two assists from sixteen appearances. The midfielder seems to have a particular disdain for United, however, and will look to ruffle a few feathers if selected tomorrow.
Howe has confirmed that captain Simon Francis will miss the game through injury, and he will wait to decide on a few additional late concerns. Jordon Ibe, however, is expected to return to the side.
The biggest news from Mourinho’s pre-match press conference was confirmation that Luke Shaw will return to the squad. The 23-year-old left back has barely featured in recent weeks, and failed to register any involvement against his former club Southampton at Wembley. Opportunities have been rare for Shaw under Mourinho, and while he may not start, his spirits will surely be lifted by at least returning to contention. Marcos Rojo struggled hugely at left-back against the Saints and it is unlikely to retain his place. Shaw is the only natural left-back in the squad, and it is overdue that he is given another chance.
After missing last week’s final through injury, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has again been ruled out of tomorrow’s clash – stating on Twitter that he is likely to be back next week. Mkhitaryan’s dynamism was missed at Wembley, and though Jesse Lingard scored yet another goal at the national stadium, he falls short of the Armenian in terms of ability. Mourinho spoke earnestly of his dissatisfaction with United’s performance last week, and may make some changes tomorrow as a result.
Mata was wasted on the right-wing, and was swiftly replaced by Michael Carrick at half-time against Southampton. The Spaniard can be forgiven for not being fully focused on the match, returning from his grandfather’s funeral only 24 hours beforehand. The diminutive playmaker will likely be motivated to impress after getting the hook, and could start again in Mkhitaryan’s absence.
United subs from: Romero, Young, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Rooney, Rashford.
Bournemouth subs from: Gosling, Afobe, Allsop, Pugh, Gradel, Smith, Stanislas, Mousset
Marcus Rashford has pushed for a starting berth in recent weeks, bagging an impressive goal against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup and producing a positive display after replacing Lingard in the EFL Cup Final. Unfortunately for the teenager, with him in the starting line-up United lacks a game-changing option from the bench should things not go to plan. Rashford’s pace is particularly devastating in the latter stages of matches, and he may be kept in reserve again in case Bournemouth manage to keep the Reds out.
Regardless of team selection, tomorrow’s fixture is a chance for the Reds to move on themselves out of sixth place and gain a significant foothold in the top four race. United has a game in hand over Liverpool to come, and it would be a timely boost for Mourinho’s men if they were able to play it while already ahead of their Merseyside rivals. Firstly, however, the pressure is on to overcome a Bournemouth side who arrive at Old Trafford increasingly desperate for points – Mourinho must ensure his side send them home empty-handed.
Kevin Friend (Referee)
D Cann, M Wilkes (Assistants)
L Probert (Fourth official)
United 2-0 Bournemouth