Threadbare Reds face West Brom as battle for top four reaches critical juncture
Relief, at last, from the many long nights of international boredom. The real stuff happens this weekend, with José Mourinho’s Manchester United in Premier League action against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Such is the malaise surrounding FIFA’s lengthy two-year World Cup qualification process that the nation awaits the Premier League’s return, save for Arsenal supporters, for whom a meaningless friendly between Andora and Vanuatu is merciful respite from the soul crushing misery of their reality.
Mourinho is relishing the coming action, although perhaps not the fallout from the international break, with a rash of new injuries testing United’s already threadbare squad. Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss the Baggies’ arrival at Old Trafford through suspension, while Paul Pogba is still a fortnight away from a return.
"The nation awaits the Premier League’s return, save for Arsenal supporters, for whom a meaningless international friendly is merciful respite from the soul crushing misery of their domestic reality."
It is injuries to Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Juan Mata over the break that cut even deeper. Smalling injured his team-mate Jones on England duty, with the former then picking up a training ground injury. It would be funny if not for the tragedy. Meanwhile, Mata endured a groin operation this week that will keep the Spaniard out for at least a month.
It is certainly no time for an injury crisis, with United facing a truly pivotal fortnight. The Reds complete Premier League fixtures against West Brom, Everton and Sunderland before Chelsea’s visit in the middle of the month. Add a Europa League double-header against Anderlecht to the schedule, and Mourinho’s side will play a barely credible nine times in April.
It is little wonder Mourinho admits that there is no further room for error. The string of home draws against mediocre opposition that has bugged United’s season cannot be repeated if the Reds are to make next season’s Champions League.
“Every match now for us is a big match,” said Mourinho. “In the Premier League one more victory we are in the running, one defeat maybe you are not in the running anymore.
“The players have to be resilient, they have to be professionals, they have to be team players, they have to understand the team’s needs, they have to go to the limits, they have to play with small injuries, they have to play with pain, play with fatigue because there is no other chance.”
United’s busy schedule is, in part at least, due to the club’s progress in cup competitions during Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford. Victory in the EFL Cup Final, together with an extended Europa League run, could leave the Reds facing a 60-plus game season. The packed April schedule may come at cost, with United facing Chelsea either side of a Europa League quarter-final.
Ever ready the circle the wagons in the face of adversity, Mourinho knows that his side cannot fail now, even if the schedule is against his side.
“In two weeks we are going to play against Chelsea, before that we play Anderlecht and after we play Anderlecht,” Mourinho added.
“Chelsea before and after are on holidays. You can name their team, you can say this one, this one, this one, this one and this one. In 15 days’ time maybe the Premier League is not important for us, maybe it is. If we keep winning matches now that match against Chelsea is important for us. If we lose matches now that match is not important and the important matches are only Anderlecht.”
Mourinho’s side is four points behind Liverpool in fourth, albeit with two games in hand. Yet, the Reds play not only Chelsea, but Champions League rivals, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur before the season closes. It is the kind of test for which Mourinho was recruited. Starting with West Brom, a team that has won two of its last three Premier League matches at United.
The Baggies are enjoying a bumper season under manager Tony Pulis, with the west Midlands club nine points behind United in eighth place. Although a challenge for a European spot now seems unlikely, West Brom should improve on last season’s 14th place in the Premier League. Pulis’ side has done it playing some decent football as well, albeit in a low-scoring outfit that has lost 10 games in the league campaign. As ever with a Pulis team, his players work harder than most, with West Brom having outrun its opponents in 27 of 29 games this season, including the last 19 in a row.
Prior to the international break, Pulis’ enjoyed a stunning 3-1 home win against Arsenal, helped by a brace from defender Craig Dawson. The record on the road is less impressive, with the Baggies yet to win away from the Hawthorns in 2017.
The team arrives with a clutch of former United players, including goalkeeper Ben Foster, defender Johnny Evans and midfielder Darren Fletcher. It is the kind of know-how that could prove dangerous on Saturday afternoon, at a venue where United has failed too often this season.
Yet, Pulis is backing that trio’s former club to challenge for the title next season, even if this campaign is now beyond the Reds.
“I think they have got the right manager and they are going in the right direction,” Pulis said. “It looks as though Chelsea are going to run away with it this year but I wouldn’t be betting against Manchester United next year.
“The thing with Mourinho is he knows how to win and he knows how to win at the top with big clubs. He has had a year this year of sorting things out but they are a very good side. On their day they are as good as anybody in the Premier League. Next year, I am sure they will add to it again and they will be there or thereabouts.”
Mata’s injury at a crucial juncture of the season is a cruel blow, leaving United desperately short of players in midfield for West Brom’s visit. With Herrera and Pogba also absent Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick could he be joined in midfield by the returning Wayne Rooney, or Jesse Lingard. The striker was dropped by England manager Gareth Southgate and may already have played for his country for final time.
United subs from: Romero, Riley, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Young, Rooney
West Brom subs from: Myhill, Galloway, Wilson, Phillips, Harper, Field, Chadli, Yacob, Rondon
While the Spain midfielder is reportedly confident of featuring by May, the same might not be true of Jones and Smalling. The defenders picked up injuries on England duty in the most hapless of circumstances. It leaves United reliant on Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly, both of whom have enjoyed strong seasons but have played together just once. Indeed, Rojo and fellow defender Antonio Valencia return last to Manchester following games in South America. Daley Blind or Matteo Darmian will feature at left-back.
Elsewhere, Luke Shaw has been omitted from the squad to face West Brom, despite United’s injury list, but Anthony Martial is available. The Frenchman is likely to feature in an attacking unit including Marcus Rashford. The young Englishman enjoyed a positive cameo for England against Lithuania, but hasn’t scored in the Premier League since September – a stunning data point for a hugely gifted player. Mourinho could deploy Henrikh Mkhitaryan through the centre with Lingard, or wide right if Rooney returns.
“The important players are the ones that are ready to play, and the ones I trust, and the ones who are going to give everything tomorrow to try to keep us in the fight for the top four,” Mourinho added.
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: J Collin, S Long
Fourth official: P Bankes
United 2-1 West Brom