Reds chase top four finish as injuries bite ahead of derby
Fluid and efficient aren’t adjectives often used to describe Manchester United, at least not this season, but it would be a fine summary of Sunday afternoon’s win over Burnley. Mourinho’s men barely had a moment to digest Thursday night’s Europa League before making the relatively short journey north to Burnley. Save for injuries, it was a good week domestically and in Europe.
It was certainly a surprise that Marcus Rashford was left out of United’s trip to Burnley so soon after the reality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s serious injury became clear. After all, the youngster had been United’s match winner just three days earlier and is expected to lead the line in the Swede’s long absence.
"Fluid and efficient aren’t adjectives often used to describe Manchester United, at least not this season, but it would be a fine summary of Sunday afternoon’s win over Burnley."
Instead, Anthony Martial was the man chosen to fill the void in Burnley. The Frenchman’s contribution has been minimal this season, due in large part to Mourinho’s apparent distrust as he struggles to adapt to the manager’s regime. The Frenchman enjoyed a fine – if expensive – performance at Turf Moor.
It is welcome that not only is Mourinho attempting to fit Martial back into his plans, but Martial took his opportunity by closing a rapid counter-attack with a cool finish to open proceedings. It is the kind of goal seldom seen since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, and one that also costs United €10 million, payable directly to Monaco, to mark Martial’s 25th in a United shirt.
Martial might have seen his haul doubled if not for a fine save by Tom Heaton. The deflection was finished by Wayne Rooney, for United’s seconds, with the striker now hoping that his flirtation with injury is over for the season.
Many supporters had began to wonder whether the best moments of Martial’s career had come in his first season at the club. The performance at Burnley followed a passing comment from his manager about the application of the world’s “most expensive teenager.” If the provocation worked, then United will benefit, not least with the club’s options up front thinning since Ibrahimovic’s injury.
Martial’s speed in attack is underlined by the stat that he makes the “most sprints in the game” – it is a quality United has been looking for this season. For too long United’s build has come at a snail’s pace – by contrast the direct running at Burnley was a refreshing change.
Yet, as United closed out victory, thoughts quickly turned to the other half of Manchester, with City playing out an FA Cup semi-final culminating in extra time. With the Blues not playing in the league and Liverpool losing to Crystal Palace the possibility of a top four finish moved a little closer to reality over the weekend.
United cannot afford to let this recent upturn in fortune go to waste at the Etihad on Thursday night. Despite spending the season outside the top four, Mourinho’s side has an opportunity to make a late run for Champions League qualification. After victory over Chelsea, visiting supporters can hope that Mourinho can pull off another tactical masterclass against one of the league’s better sides.
City’s season has been far from the one envision back in February 2016, when Pep Guardiola was first unveiled as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor. The reputation that Guardiola has fostered over his career is that of the finest tactical mind in the game. Yet, the Spaniard’s first season in English football has been far less impressive than his outstanding CV suggests he should have delivered. Failure to beat Arsenal on Sunday means Guardiola will end the season trophyless for the first time in his career.
Finishing in a Champions League position is the minimum Guardiola can deliver at this point. Together with an underwhelming showing in cup competitions, a league campaign that started with such promise has withered to leave City just a point ahead of United heading into Thursday’s game.
Still, Guardiola has a plethora of talented options across the board, from centre forward Sergio Aguero, to creative players such as Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. They are options that should test even the most hardened defences – and it is a discredit to Guardiola that they haven’t combined to create a spectacular season for the Citizens.
In another cruel blow, United will line up without Paul Pogba at the Etihad. The midfield maestro picked up a hamstring injury late during the weekend’s tie against Burnley and he joins an already bulging list of big name injuries. Mourinho received some better news with both Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia are available, and will likely make team.
Mourinho blames the spate of injuries on a heavy workload, with the team already past 50 games this season.
“Paul was injured because he played two hours against Anderlecht and then he was playing 90 minutes against Burnley two days later,” Mourinho explained.
“If you compare us with Chelsea and Liverpool we have played 18 more matches than them. That is half a Premier League. It’s not out of context that the last two champions – I include Chelsea now and Leicester last season – didn’t play in Europe and that three years ago Liverpool were almost champions without playing European competition.”
City subs from: Caballero, Zabaletta, Kolarov, Delph, Jesus, Nolito, Iheanacho
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Young, Carrick, Lingard
City’s David Silva is a major doubt following his early removal on Sunday afternoon’s tie, meaning Herrera could be deployed to act as a blanket over Kevin de Bruyne in an attempt to limit the influence one of the key men supporting Aguero.
Meanwhile, up front Marcus Rashford was given something of a rest at the weekend and will likely be reinstated as United’s centre forward. Visiting supporters will hope that the teenage superstar can emulate the solo effort that secured victory over the crosstown rivals last season. After completing the full 90 on Sunday Wayne Rooney could be deployed behind Rashford, if nothing else than to add some experience to a youthful attacking unit.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Burt, A Nunn
Fourth official: N Swarbrick
City 1 – 1 United