As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
José Mourinho has gained a reputation for alienating many in the game. The big personality, robust ego and single-minded drive to win is ill-suited to making friends. Yet, the Portuguese manager comes face-to-face this weekend with one of his few friends in the game, former assistant and Middlesbrough coach Aitor Karanka. It’ll be a meeting of minds as well as colleagues. Yet, with Manchester United desperate to add a fifth straight league win as momentum builds, there’ll be little time for friendship at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Strange competition the Capital One Cup. While leading Premier League sides have, for more than 20 years, used the nation’s second cup tournament as a proving ground for youngsters, and an opportunity for fringe players to gain minutes, the practice has seemingly spread. So much so that Championship high fliers Middlesbrough may well not field a full-strength side when the club takes on United at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Aitor Karanka’s side is just 13 matches into a brutal 46-game Championship season, with England’s second tier a notoriously competitive arena. Last season’s Championship winners, Bournemouth, lost 13 times on route to claiming the league title by a single point. There were just five points between first and fourth, and 12 between first and sixth-placed Ipswich Town. By contrast there were 17 points between Premier League title winners Chelsea and United in fourth, and 25 points to Liverpool in sixth.
If the competitive nature of the Championship leads Karanka to a policy of rotation on Wednesday, few will be surprised, although the team is also more than a little battle hardened. As it should be under a coach who once served as José Mourinho’s apprentice.
Karanka, the former Real Madrid and Spain defender, was appointed manager at Boro in November 2013, replacing local favourite Tony Mowbray. He previously served as assistant manager to Mourinho at Madrid for three years prior to Carlo Ancelotti’s appointment, while as a player Karanka won three Champions League titles in five seasons from 1998, together with La Liga in 2001.
The lofty pedigree might normally have taken Karanka to a more prestigious appointment. It was, perhaps, a brave move from a storied player – both to take a first managerial job in unfamiliar territory and to drop down a division – but one that is bearing early fruit. His side is just five points off the Championship summit and has won eight of the last 10 games.
That spell under Mourinho has seemingly served Karanka well; his side boasts one of the best defensive records in the division. And while the apple seldom falls far from the tree, the Boro coach also cites United manager Louis van Gaal as a secondary, if indirect, influence.
“I played against Van Gaal’s team when he was in Barcelona and Jose was his assistant but we have never met for a chat and I don’t really know him,” he told the Northern Echo .
“But Jose told me all about his CV, his trophies and his career and he is a top, top manager. He is an interesting coach and he is particularly interesting for me because I have learned with Jose and Jose learned from van Gaal. I took the lessons from Jose so I feel I have learned from van Gaal too. Jose always speaks very well of van Gaal.
“He said he has mixed things like everybody to make himself better. Everybody has to take the good things from relationship and he considers van Gaal really positively. I am my own manager but as I learn I would like to think I have taken positive things from strong relationships I’ve had.”
Van Gaal, meanwhile, may look to some of his younger players in the Capital One Cup, although the United manager fielded a strong side in victory over Ipswich in the third round. Still, James Wilson, Jesse Lindgard, and Andreas Pereira will all hope to play some part on Wednesday.
Pereira scored a superb free-kick against Ipswich in a well-received full début for the club. That said, the Brazilian has made just two appearances this season – the other as a substitute in the Champions League – after a highly positive showing on the summer tour of the USA.
While the 20-year-old might ordinarily have gone out on loan this season, especially with the club well stocked in the attacking midfield roles Pereira enjoys, he believes that there is an opportunity to break into Van Gaal’s side.
“It’s good to work with the manager here,” he told United Review. “He’ll bring you into the team if you do well and train well. I have a trust with him and it’s a nice feeling to work with someone who will give you the opportunity. If you do something wrong, he will tell you and, if you do something right, he will tell you.”
Pereira’s opportunity could come with Van Gaal describing a number of his players as “in the red zone” coming into the game. The Dutchman has used rotation sparsely this season, even with a small squad.
Then again, fielding patchwork sides in this competition is a policy that does not always serve manager’s well. Last season’s chastening defeat at MK Dons remains fresh in the memory, while Arsenal’s 3-0 battering at Championship side Sheffield Wednesday also serves as a stark reminder.
Still, history remains on United’s side – the Reds have won 13 of the last 14 home ties in the League Cup. The sole defeat: to then Championship side Crystal Palace.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal is without injured trio Antonio Valencia, Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw, although all eyes will be on captain Wayne Rooney, whose form this season has been the topic of prolonged conversation. Indeed, questions about Rooney’s form noticeably irritated Van Gaal following United’s bore draw with Manchester City on Sunday. The captain will surely play.
Elsewhere first teamers Marouane Fellaini, Memphis Depay and Daley Blind will hope to earn a recall, while Anthony Martial could be in line for a well-earned rest. Ashley Young is fit again, while one of Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones could drop to the bench. With Valencia injured, Matteo Darmian comes back into the side, with Lingard set to be retained on the right-wing.
“Valencia is injured,” van Gaal confirmed on Tuesday. “But I have a lot of players in the ‘red zone’ because we have had a lot of matches and we have a lot of matches to play. I have to see if I can use them or not. We need all the days to recover at this moment, so it is difficult to say.”
Meanwhile, Boro will be without Adam Forshaw, Albert Adomah and Christian Stuani through injury. Karanka could deploy City loanee Bruno Zuculini in midfield, with the Argentine joining on a month’s loan on Monday.
United subs from: Romero, Rojo, Pereira, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderline, Mata, Wilson, Martial
Middlesbrough subs from: Fry, Stephens, Amorebieta, Maloney, Zuculini, Nsue, Adomah, Nugent
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant referees: S Long and M Wilkes
Fourth Official: A Woolmer
United 3-0 Middlesbrough
£1 bet club
Memphis to score twice at 15/2
Match graphic by @cole007