Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last gasp winner at Crystal Palace was that it almost had that old air of inevitability about it. There was no cast-iron guarantee that the Reds would find a way past Palace’s enforced rear-guard, but it felt much more likely than the days of watching Louis Van Gaal’s United pacing around outside the door without so much as knocking it. Now, a tough test at West Bromwich Albion is the perfect opportunity to take another step in the right direction.
Crisis averted. Manchester United’s narrow Champions League victory over CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford on Tuesday brought to an end a series of three goalless draws featuring Louis van Gaal’s team. The win, courtesy of Wayne Rooney’s late header, puts United in prime position to qualify from Group B. Yet, with the Reds having scored just once in the past four games, the wolves remain inches from the Dutchman’s door. It was Little wonder, with Old Trafford’s patience running thin, that cries of “attack, attack, attack,” once again rang out on Tuesday.
Van Gaal’s acknowledgement of the problem is scant, although the 64-year-old does seemingly understand of the frustration supporters feel. Still, with United’s manager having done little to correct the underlying cause, Old Trafford remains on the edge 18 months into the Dutchman’s time at the club. After all, despite this week’s victory over a distinctly average opponent, United boasts one of the meekest attacks in the country and a level of ambition to match. For many it is just not the ‘United way’.
Van Gaal’s team boasts the second lowest total number of chances created in the Premier League – ahead, only, of Saturday’s opponents West Bromwich Albion. United’s solid defence remains the difference between the club challenging Manchester City and Arsenal at the top of the league, and another mediocre season.
With United’s manager unwilling to change his approach, Van Gaal is reliant on positive results to turn the crowd around. Indeed, mid-table West Brom should provide ample fodder on Saturday, although the manager has given supporters free rein to aim criticism at the Dutchman should the Reds’ fail on Saturday.
“Criticism from the fans is never unfair because it is a feeling of the fans and you cannot criticise the feeling of the fans,” said Van Gaal at his weekly Friday press confernce. “I think we have to play for the fans, but I have already said that the fans also have to understand the game and the resistance of our opponent.
“The supporters have to support the players otherwise they make it very difficult for the players to play at Old Trafford. I can only advise the fans to criticise the manager and not the players. It’s very difficult to play for Manchester United with a lot of pressure and you can taste that in Old Trafford. Then it’s better to whistle the manager, I can cope with it because I have had a lot of experience.”
Yet, the veteran coach appears unwilling to change path, with Rooney still the source of significant debate. The Scouser has scored just twice in the Premier League this season, while performances have rarely merited inclusion in the side, save for the captain’s “special privileges.” The former Evertonian’s performance was brighter against CSKA; he scored with an unmarked header, and created two further chances for his team-mates, although the 30-year-old’s passing remained inconsistent.
Rooney is likely to continue in a deeper role at number 10 following Tuesday’s performance, enabling the livewire Anthony Martial to start up-front. The sacrifice: Ander Herrera will drop to the bench, leaving United one-paced through midfield and often far too narrow. It is this kind of compromise – crowbarring Rooney into the team – that increases many supporters’ level of frustration.
Meanwhile, Tony Pulis’ West Brom side arrives in the north east sporting four ex-United players. Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher will certainly start at Old Trafford, while Anders Lindegaard is likely to find a place on the bench. Another former Red, Ben Foster, is on the road to full fitness after suffering a serious knee injury earlier this year.
Fletcher, in particular, has impressed at the Hawthorns, starting every West Brom game this season – and belying critics who thought the Scot’s time at the top-level of English football had come to an end. Fletcher and Evans retain the United manager’s affection, with each moving on to gain regular minutes that were not forthcoming under Van Gaal. Each is likely to receive a very warm welcome back at Old Trafford.
“I think it’s very good because I always try to be honest for my players,” said the Dutchman. “I had said to them ‘Your playing minutes are not too much and at your age you have to play football.’ The decision to go from United to another club is a big one, but they have made it out of ambition and I like that very much. You can also decide to stay and not play and train, a lot of players are doing that, but I have a great respect for these players.”
The Baggies are mid-table in the Premier League having endured a mixed October. Defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City were tempered by narrow victories over Norwich City and Sunderland. Still, it is path that should just about keep West Brom in the division come next May.
“Our away record has been first class, but at home we’ve switched-off and been punished,” said Pulis. “We spend a lot of time analysing what we do as a group and the players have responded well this week.
“It’s going to be difficult. If you consider the money Louis has spent, the players they’ve got and the depth that they’ve got, it shouldn’t really be a contest. But if you get 11 players running around on any given day, who’ll work hard for the team and give it their best, then who knows.”
Pulls’ team conceded three at home to Leicester last weekend, but enjoys a fine defensive record on the road. With just two conceded in five matches, Pulis’ side is unlikely to cave at Old Trafford. It does not bode well for the kind of exciting football that the Old Trafford crowd expects.
Team news and line-ups
Van Gaal has no fresh injury concerns ahead of Saturday’s match, with Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw the only absentees. Morgan Schneiderlin missed Tuesday’s victory, with what the United manager described as an “illness,” but the Frenchman could make the bench. Right-back Matteo Darmian is suspended after reaching five yellow cards for the season.
There are unlikely to be significant changes from Tuesday’s side, with Ashley Young starting at right-back and Jesse Lingard retaining his place in midfield following a bright performance against CSKA.
“He’s doing well,” said van Gaal of the youngster. “That’s why I want to keep him and why I have said his chances shall come. He has a lot of pace and I like pace on the wings. Now he has first assist also. I think he shall have a boost from this game because he played very well, in my opinion, and I hope he shall continue.”
Meanwhile, Pulis says that his side has “one or two knocks” ahead of the game, although the former Stoke City is reluctant to reveal his hand. James Morrison is available after returning from injury as in defeat to Leicester last weekend.
United subs from: Romero, Blind, Pereira, Tuanzebe, Schneiderlin, Fellaini, Herrera, Depay, Wilson
CSKA subs from: Lindegaard, Rose, Morrison, Olsson, Gnabry, McManaman, Chester, Gardner, Anichebe, Lambert
Referee: Mike Dean Assistants: H Lennard, M McDonough Fourth Official: N Swarbrick
United 1-0 West Brom
In a season of mixed lows and the occasional high Manchester United’s defeats to Chelsea and Everton were, remarkably perhaps, the first time Louis van Gaal’s side had lost in consecutive games. The data point is a surprise – perhaps a measure of the complex narrative that has developed over the campaign. After all, United will probably finish fourth this season – and yet just a fortnight ago second was a realistic goal. Nobody is forgetting that either is better than seventh under David Moyes 12 months ago.
With those defeats in mind Van Gaal’s side hosts West Bromwich Albion this weekend. The home side is desperate for the win that will take United a step closer to the Champions League. Indeed, victory over the Baggies, and in next weekend’s encounter with Crystal Palace, will see United return to the continent’s premier competition in 2015/16.
Little can be taken for granted after last weekend’s chastening loss at Everton. Although the visitors hogged more than 60 per cent of possession – and created 17 chances – it was Everton that ruthlessly converted opportunities into goals. United’s was a defeat that left Van Gaal more angry at his players than at any other point this season. Not without reason; the manager was forced to blame his players’ lack of “motivation” for the heavy reverse.
More worrying than defeat alone is how effectively both Chelsea and Everton soaked up United’s pressure and secured victory on the break. It is a pattern that United cannot afford to repeat – this season or next and one that is only partially likely to occur this weekend. Tony Pulls’ West Brom side is tight in defence, but lacking the incisive pace to hurt United on the break. Not, at least, within Old Trafford’s safe harbour.
Still, Van Gaal firmly rejects the notion that United cannot overcome defensive opponents, although he remains conscious of the risks of that his post-Christmas possession-based game might bring. After all, while United’s performances and results have been positive over the past two months, double defeat to Chelsea and Everton has brought some soul searching.
“When you have the ball for more than 60 per cent, for example also against Everton, then the chance is bigger that you can lose the ball and there is a lot of space behind us because they are defending and we are standing on the middle line,” explained the Dutchman on Friday. “That is more difficult to defend than when you are defending in your own 60 metres.”
“You need a high ball circulation and then they have to run for 90 minutes behind the ball. After 60 minutes or 70 minutes there are gaps that are forming and you have to take advantage.”
As for West Brom, the Dutchman in cautious of the Baggies’ “long ball,” insisting that United must “disorganise their organisation” to win.
On the pitch Van Gaal will call on Wayne Rooney after early reports that the striker was out for the season proved incorrect, although Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva and Marcos Rojo remain on the sidelines. Evans has missed the past six games through suspension, but picked up an injury during the week.
Meanwhile, Angel Di Maria could start, possibly in place of Juan Mata or Luke Shaw, after Van Gaal suggested that the Argentinian midfielder is ready to be included in the United starting team once again. Striker Robin van Persie will be involved at some point after completing 80 minutes for the reserves on Tuesday. The Dutchman scored twice and hit the post twice during a productive outing, although Van Gaal admitted that supporters will “have to wait and see if I let him play.”
Injuries mean that Antonio Valencia and Daley Blind will start, despite the pair being singled out for criticism after United’s deconstruction at Everton. Valencia was at least partially at fault for two of United’s goals conceded, while Blind offered little protection in a defensive midfield role to which he looked ill-suited.
This was a personal and team failure that the Dutch international is determined to right against West Brom.
“I wanted to play this game against West Brom on Monday so that we could move on straightaway,” said Blind. “I think the team wants to show a reaction to the last two games. It is the first time this season that we have lost twice in a row, but now we have a home game with the crowd behind us. We have to pay them back by winning against West Brom.”
Meanwhile, Pullis’ side will include former United midfielder Darren Fletcher. The Scot left Old Trafford in January after 20 years with the club. It was a process instigated, says Van Gaal, by an honest conversation over Fletcher’s future role and United’s playing style. Fletcher made more than 340 appearances for United after joining the club as a youth team player in 1995.
“I am conscious of making sure I walk out on the right side, go in the right dressing room and things like that, so I’ll have to be really focused and concentrated,” said the Scot.
“Beforehand obviously there will be handshakes and different things like that, but for the 90 minutes I’m the opposition and as much as United want to win, I want to win as well. I’m going back with a job to do for my new team. That’s football. That’s the winner inside you.”
Fletcher will receive a huge ovation from the Old Trafford crowd, of course. The Scot battled back from a serious bowel condition and 18 months on the sidelines to regain a place in United’s first team. Pity, in one sense, that Fletcher’s time ended with a succession of underwhelming performances – age and illness too obviously caught on a once effective player. On Saturday Fletcher will return a hero – an ‘honest’ player in an era of galaticos.
Pullis will call on the returning midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu returns from a ban, while loanee Andre Wisdom is available again. The focus will be on Fletcher though. “I think the fans shall give Darren a lot of applause,” added Van Gaal.
There will be even more for United should the Reds end a two-game losing run.
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Blind; Herrera; Di Maria, Mata, Fellaini, Young; Rooney
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Dawson, Lescott, McAuley, Brunt; Gardner, Fletcher, Mulumbu, Morrison; Anichebe, Berahino
United: Valdes, McNair, Blackett, Januzaj, Perreira, Wilson, Falcao, Van Persie
West Brom: Olsson, Baird, Ideye, Gamboa, McManaman, Yacob, Sessegnon, Rose
United 53 – Draw 31 – West Brom 31
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: G Beswick, P Kirkup
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3-0 West Brom
£1 bet club
Di Maria to score and 3-0 @ 35/1
Running total: £8.50 up!
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Old Trafford’s injury crisis is no more. Well, at least it is a situation that has now resolved to a manageable level. After three months with Carrington’s medical department stuffed full of Manchester United’s finest, Louis van Gaal is without just four players for the visit to West Bromwich Albion on Monday night. Relief all round.
The international break came at an opportune time for United, although any momentum generated from the Reds’ laboured victory over Everton at fortnight ago is now lost. Still, with Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling all back in training Van Gaal enjoys a fuller compliment of available players than at any time in his short Old Trafford tenure.
Indeed, the veteran Dutchman now has the tools for a fair assessment of his performance as manager. “Judge me in three months,” said Van Gaal back in July. Time to start racking up victories and performances, some might say, after an inconsistent start to the campaign. Not least because United heads into the match at the Hawthorns seeking a first away victory of the season – a run that has included defeats at both Leicester City and Milton Keynes Dons.
United will be without Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia for the trip south, while Wayne Rooney serves the second of a three match suspension. In the Scouser’s absence Robin van Persie is again likely to play alongside Radamel Falcao, with Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj competing for a place at ‘number 10’.
Falcao scored his first United goal against Everton at Old Trafford, although Van Persie is yet to find any real form this season. Meanwhile, Mata’s passive performances, despite a fine goalscoring record, has already seen the Spaniard dropped in favour of Rooney this season. Januzaj is yet to start a game for the Reds under Van Gaal, but a series of spectacular performances for the Under-21s have caught the eye.
Whether Herrera or Carrick feature in central midfield depends on match fitness, with Van Gaal playing down the Englishman’s chances. The Spaniard, however, could wear a protective “corset” to shield a broken rib sustained against West Ham United in September.
“I am very happy because there are no injuries from the international games,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “The players who are recovering are not able to play and we have to wait and see for the line-up on Monday. But we have only four players injured now. That is good.”
Three months in and Van Gaal says that his players now “understand the philosophy” following a significant tactical overhaul in the post-David Moyes era. It is change not helped by the rash of injuries and ever-shifting formations, with the Dutchman having used a variety of back three and back four systems this season.
“I have confidence in my players and I think that is very important,” insisted Van Gaal. “But it is much more important that the players have confidence in the manager and his staff. Of course, we could have done better because I don’t think that we are in balance now. We have to see if it works at a higher level. I am looking for more balance in the team, not just spectactular, attacking football.”
Meanwhile, Alan Irvine’s Baggies enjoyed three victories on the bounce before suffering defeat to Liverpool a fortnight ago. Chris Brunt should be available after suffering a groin strain while on international duty, but Brown Ideye is out with an ankle problem. Yet, it is young Englishman Saido Berahino that carries the host’s attacking threat, with the 21-year-old having scored five times in the Premier League this season and starred for the England Under-21 side that has qualified for next summer’s European Championship. Little wonder the youngster has been the subject of heated transfer speculation in recent weeks.
“He’s flying at the moment,” said Irvine. “He’s feeling good about himself and in a great place. If he keeps going the way he is he will gather momentum. Saido is going in the right direction. I have had a few conversations with him where it’s been a case of ‘You keep doing what you are doing and everything will happen for you'”.
Van Gaal described West Brom as “dangerous opponents,” while demanding a United victory on Monday. After discarding points at Leicester, Burnley and Sunderland, the Dutchman is seemingly in little mood for his side to slip up again.
“We have to start with a victory after the international break because we have won the last two games, but West Brom did that too so they also want to win the match. It won’t be easy,” said the United manager.
“[Against] Leicester City we played very good, but we gave it away. The other matches we played – two draws and we could have won them. We were the better team: we created chances, but we didn’t score. We have to start on Monday against West Bromwich Albion with a victory.”
It is a sentiment to which many United supporters will concur. After all, with injuries on the wane and Van Gaal’s “philosophy” gaining traction, there are few inhibitors left to improving performances. Victories for Manchester City and Chelsea at the weekend press home the need for three vital points.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
West Brom (4-4-2): Foster; Wisdom, Lescott, Dawson, Pocognoli; Morrison, Dorrans, Gardner, Brunt; Sessegnon, Berahino
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Smalling, Janko, Fletcher, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Anderson, Januzaj, Wilson
West Brom: Myhill, Daniels, Olsson, Ideye, Davidson, Gamboa, O’Neil, Baird, Mulumbu, McAuley, Blanco, Samaras
West Brom 41 – Draw 30 – United 53
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: J Brooks, J Collin
Fourth Official: M Atkinson
West Brom 0-2 United
£1 bet club
Falcao to score a brace @ 4/1
Running total: £(-)8
If Manchester United’s performance against Olympiakos was shocking at first witness then it is really nothing compared to a second viewing. David Moyes’ side was not only at its apathetic worst in Athens, but the tactics were just about as agricultural as possible in the modern game. It may be United’s worst season in a quarter-century, but the Reds’ approach was straight out Charles Hughes’ coaching book: get it wide, get it in, feed off the second ball. It ought to be truly shocking, but somehow after eight months of Moyes’ influence at Old Trafford, it isn’t.
This is how far United has fallen this season. Yet, the match in Athens also serves as a reminder that whatever the promises on offer from United’s new manager – that change will come and better times lie ahead – the here and now is as desperate as United fans have know it in two generations. It is an observation that clouds every fixture from here until results dramatically improve.
It should be a good fixture this weekend, then. While West Bromwich Albion beat United at Old Trafford earlier this season the Baggies’ game has gone south even faster than that of the Reds’ in the intervening months. In September Steve Clarke remained in charge of the Midlanders, and there was hope at the Hawthorns of a top-half Premier League finish. Fast forward to the spring at Pepe Mel is desperately struggling for relevance just two months into his first job in England.
Indeed, if United cannot take advantage of an opponent that hasn’t won in more than two months and is heading for the drop then Moyes has surely lost his team.
Still, with 10 days off since Athens, Moyes has enjoyed plenty of time to stew on what might just have been United’s worst performance of the season. More than a week in which many of his stars have been on international duty, while the manager has been brooding on a route back to better performances.
Whether the Scot has found the answer remains an open question, but it surely lies in a more open, creative approach. One that is not based on hitting hopeful long balls as was so often the case in Athens.
“I think the key is to improve all things,” said Moyes on Friday.
“I want creativity and think the introduction of Juan Mata and his interplay with Rooney and Robin that I’ve seen recently has helped that creativity. We need to get back to creating more opportunities than we have done. We’ve played quite well in games but not scored and taken our chances.
“I want to make sure when the creative players aren’t getting goals, or the chances aren’t coming, we keep the back door shut and don’t concede because then we have to chase the game. When we’ve tended to score first, we’ve gone on to get positive results.”
However, Moyes will be without striker Javier Hernández for the trip south. The Mexican picked up a knee injury while on international duty, while Jonny Evans is unavailable despite training in the past week.
Better news concerns defender Phil Jones, who could feature despite missing England’s victory over Denmark on Wednesday. Jones has been out since suffering concussion in United’s defeat at Stoke City at the beginning of February.
In Evans’ absence Chris Smalling is likely to partner Inter Milan’s Nemanja Vidić in the centre of defence, while in midfield Marouanne Fellaini will compete with Tom Cleverley for a position alongside Michael Carrick.
Cleverley sat on the bench during England’s midweek victory, a victim not only of an abysmal season at club level, but of a vicious whisper campaign unfurled against the 24-year-old in social media over the past week. Add a gloating tone from many in the traditional fourth estate, and there is little wonder both England manager Roy Hodgson and his club peer have been pressed to support the 24-year-old.
“First and foremost, I’m surprised the media are picking up on something from social media and making a big deal of it in the way it’s come about in the first place,” said Moyes.
“Tom Cleverley is a fantastic young player who is developing all the time. He’s a great trainer here, someone who is the first out every day. He does his best in training and never gives it less than 100 per cent. From my point of view, that is why Tom will be successful.”
Meanwhile, West Brom will assess midfielders Chris Brunt and James Morrison ahead of United’s visit – each suffered injury on international duty last week. Manager Pepe Mel will definitely be without Billy Jones who is injured, but Stephane Sessegnon and Claudio Yacob are both fit.
However, striker Nicolas Anelka will not be available. The Frenchman begins a five-match ban for the ‘quenelle’ gesture made in December. The action brought a strong denial of impropriety from the 34-year-old, but the Frenchman was strongly condemned in a damning 35-page judgement this week. The report unequivocally associated his gesture with the anti-semetic movement in France.
While the Baggies have lost their principal sponsor over the incident immediate priorities are points, and with just seven secured in 2014, Mel’s side is now just a single place above the relegation zone.
United may be less desperate, with the title gone and Champions League football out of reach, but Moyes’ credibility remains on the line. Indeed, results and United’s direct style of play have contributed what is an increasingly fractious dressing room atmosphere, according to some observers.
It is an atmosphere in which Robin van Persie has become increasingly vocal, telling fellow Dutchman Ronaldo de Boer this week that unless United’s result pick up he may seek new opportunities in the summer.
Moyes does not expect van Persie to follow captain Nemanja Vidic out of the club despite Ronald De Boer saying this week that the striker was “not enjoying the football Manchester United play”.
“I couldn’t reply to that and I wouldn’t know how Ronald de Boer would know that,” said Moyes said.
“I travelled back from the [Holland] game with Robin the other night. I went to the game, watched them play and travelled back with him. I hardly feel I need to answer the question.”
The more pressing one is whether Moyes remains suitable for the United job. Three points on Saturday will provide a temporary answer at least.
West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United, Premier League, Hawthorns, 12.45pm, 8 March 2014
West Brom (4-2-3-1): Foster; Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob; Morrison, Gera, Brunt; Anichebe
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Mata, Carrick, Fellaini, Januzaj; Rooney; van Persie
United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Jones, Fletcher, Giggs, Kagawa, Valencia, Young, Cleverley, Welbeck
West Brom: Myhill, Sinclair, Bifouma, Berahino, Dorrans, Tamas, Popov, Daniels, Sessègnon, Amalfitano, Vydra, Dawson
West Brom 41 Draw 30 United 52
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Assistants: S Long, A Halliday
Fourth Official: M Dean
So there it is: Manchester United’s “toughest start for 20 years” done and very much dusted, four wins, one draw and two crushing defeats later. David Moyes may have overplayed the severity of United’s opening seven fixtures this season, but it has been a chastening experience for the 50-year-old Scot, his squad and supporters alike. From here until Christmas the journey should be somewhat less jarring. That is the theory at least.
Defeat to Manchester City last Sunday has cast a long shadow over Moyes’ opening few months in charge at Old Trafford. Five out of 10; must – can only do – better. Taken together with United’s loss at Anfield, and the home draw with Chelsea, Moyes’ outfit has dropped eight valuable Premier League points already this season.
Still, Saturday’s fixture at home to West Bromwich Albion is followed by matches against Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke City, Norwich City and Fulham, before the Reds meet Arsenal in mid-November. Throw Tottenham Hotspur into the mix during December and it looks ready for Moyes to take his stand as United manager this side of Christmas.
Or to put it another way: the season’s start struck fear into the new manager. Now is time for Moyes’ United to truly emerge.
Football isn’t as simple as all that of course. Hubris has a tendency to decisively bite back. Yet, Moyes will discover a little more of his squad in the coming weeks, with the Scot now ready to deploy players beyond the limited range used to date. It is a policy that backfired spectacularly at the Etihad last weekend when Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, in particular, looked short of peak fitness.
“We used the word ‘rotation’ but I want to see good form. If you play, it makes the job much easier if you play well,” said Moyes.
“Obviously, the performance against Manchester City didn’t merit people thinking they were necessarily playing the next game.”
Winger Ashley Young came in for stinging criticism for his part in the defeat in east Manchester, although he was certainly not alone in failing the new man. Meanwhile, Moyes is keen to seen more of players rarely used to date this season: Wilfried Zaha, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Adnan Januzaj.
“Ashley Young played in the game before against Crystal Palace and probably won us the match,” said Moyes, who hauled off the former Aston Villa winger short of the hour against City.
“He got the penalty kick and had the chance to score another goal when he went through. You could probably pick half-a-dozen players who didn’t play particularly well against City but Ashley is fine and will be okay. We’ll give him every chance to prove what he can do.
“Wilfried Zaha has not appeared as we’ve just not felt we’ve had the opportunity. I want Wilf to get used to what happens here. I think it’s important Wilf gets to see the level of training and the level of the players and the quality they have got.”
Meanwhile, central defenders Evans and Smalling should feature at some point in the fixtures against West Brom and Shaktar Donetsk in the coming week. Moyes has almost exclusively turned to the trusted Ferdinand and Vidić in the opening two months of the campaign, but with age and injury blunting the veterans’ form the Scot may now protect his star men a little more closely.
“Everyone told me how well Jonny played last season but he had a bit of a stop-start pre-season and didn’t get enough momentum to be ready to play at the start of the campaign,” added Moyes.
“I thought Smalling played really well, as did Jones in midfield, and the younger ones were good on the day. But I think Rio and Nemanja are two top centre-halves. ‘Vida’ is probably the best centre-half I have ever worked with, I would say. He is that good, he really is. Rio has really impressed me by how fit he is and the condition he has been in. He has not missed a day’s training since we came back.”
Moyes will Robin van Persie is available for the weekend fixture, with the Dutchman now back in full training following a groin problem. Tom Cleverley is back in the squad after missing United’s midweek Capital One Cup victory over Liverpool, meaning Moyes boasts a full squad from to select as United look to put together a run of victories this side of the new year.
But it is to the youngsters that many supporters hope the new manager turns. Zaha may have joined for £15 million this summer, but it is the youngster Janujaz that has garnered more positive headlines. The winger’s close control, balance and attacking instincts have brought the Belgian to the fringes of Moyes’ first team this season.
“We really think an awful lot of Adnan,” said Moyes, who is yet to tie the 18-year-old down to a new contract.
“We think he is a Manchester United player and I’m sure he will be. We think it’s the best place for producing and giving young players opportunities. We think we do it better than anybody.
“I think I do it, maybe not as well as my predecessor, but, at Everton, I always put young players in the team when I felt the time was right. It’s what we want and it’s part of my remit, to promote young players and Adnan has been promoted already.”
Meanwhile, the Baggies arrive in Manchester sweating on strikers Victor Anichebe and Nicolas Anelka. Both should be available despite minor injuries. Chris Brunt is set to miss a third successive game, but Claudio Yacob is fit after recovering from a dead leg.
Anichebe and Anelka are surely be vital if the Baggies are to turn around a poor record against United. The visitors haven’t beaten United in the Premier League, losing 11 of 14 fixtures. Indeed, it is 18 games since the Baggies’ last league victory over the Reds – at the Hawthorns in March 1984. Few expect the Midlanders to turn that record around on Saturday.
Still, United must show more quality in addition to the grit demonstrated against Liverpool on Wednesday night. It wasn’t pretty, but following the humbling loss at City, Moyes will surely be pleased with United’s determination. It was, in the parlance, “a response.”
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion, Premier League, Old Trafford, 3pm, 28 September 2013
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Smalling, Ferdinand, Anderson, Cleverley, Giggs, Zaha, Valencia, Hernández
West Brom (4-4-1-1): Myhill; Olsson, Ridgewell, McAuley, Jones; Morrison, Sinclair, Amalfitano, Mulumbu; Sessegnon; Anelka. Subs from: Camp, Popov, Lugano, Yacob, Rosenberg, Anichebe, Berahino
United 52 Draw 30 West Brom 40
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Long
Fourth Official: A Taylor
2 – 0
It has, it seems, been a week of farewells, with Manchester United fans waving Sir Alex Ferguson goodbye from both Old Trafford’s stands and the city centre scaffolds. The orchestrated celebrations served up by the club as Swansea City visited last weekend were followed by a mass outpouring as United paraded the Premier League trophy through Manchester centre on Monday. After more than 26 years in the job, even Sir Alex was caught by surprise by the scale of emotion.
There will be no Pyongang-style mass hysteria at the Hawthornes on Sunday, but Ferguson will surely be more than a little upset should United not beat West Bromwich Albion in the manager’s 1500th and final game. With little on the line bar pride and the perfect send off, United’s players must overcome a week of celebrations and a certain inertia to overcome the xxx placed Baggies.
Certainly, United’s form has been far from champion in recent weeks; not since Real Madrid knocked the side out of the Champions League in April. But with a club record points total of 91 available there is at least a small incentive for victory, beyond letting Ferguson slip into retirement on a winning note.
“1500 games – it’s incredible,” said Ferguson at his final Carrington press conference on Friday.
“West Brom have done fantastically, every team wants to win their last home game and obviously I want to win this one more than last week’s even.
“I don’t have any injury problems. I’ll make a few changes – maybe a few younger players will play.
“Anders (Lindegaard) will be in goal. I don’t have Rafael so I need to make a decision about right-back. I want to play Jones and Evans at centre-back – they could be the future. Rio (Ferdinand) and (Nemanja) Vidic will have to have a place on the bench! I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be great.”
“I’ve no idea. It is not my department. I am no longer interested in that. David is going to deal with that. Quite rightly he wants to deal with that and I’m happy with that,” the 71-year-old said.
“I have not spoken to David about that. I’m sure he will address it when he gets here,” he said.
“He has a magnetic power,” Kagawa told ManUtd.jp. “I felt it the first time I met him, from the way he conducts himself and also from working with him on the pitch.
“He communicates well with his players and respects them. As the season went on, I got to communicate with him more, both on football and other subjects. That was important.
“He is a friendly person and his spirit is much younger than his age. I think that’s because of his achievements over the years, and also his personality.
“I wish I could have played much longer under him. What he has achieved for the club is tremendous – he is in a class of his own.”
“Maybe it is,” Giggs said. “But we have a really good bunch of lads in the dressing room and, whenever the manager needs help, the more experienced players will help. That has been the norm, ever since I have been in the club.
“When I was an apprentice, I used to go upstairs at The Cliff [training ground] for my breakfast and see the likes of Brucey, Gary Pallister and Bryan Robson all in the coaches’ room, having a cup of tea and sharing jokes before training.
“That is how it has always been here. The experienced players have always had a good relationship with the staff and helped each other along.
“What David Moyes is coming into is a good atmosphere, a really good bunch of lads, very good players and a really strong squad, so it is a strong position to be in. But the downside is that you have to follow the most successful manager that has ever lived.
“Managers usually go into clubs when things aren’t going great, but this team isn’t on a downward spiral, so I don’t know if that makes it harder or easier for David.”
Manchester United v Swansea City- Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 12 May 2013
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Jones, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Kagawa, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Cleverley, Anderson, Rooney, Nani, Hernández
Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Tiendalli, Williams, Chico, Davies; De Guzman, Britton, Routledge, Pablo, Michu, Shechter. Subs from: Cornell, Bartley, Taylor, Dyer, Agustien, Moore, Donnelly, Monk, Lamah, Situ
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Halliday, P Bankes
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg
Last 10: United 6, Swansea 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 8, Swansea 6, Draw 5
- Sir Alex takes charge of United at Old Trafford for the final time on Sunday; his 1499th game in charge of the club;
- Ferguson’s captain, Nemanja Vidić made 24 interceptions last weekend in United’s loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford – the highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index during the last round of games;
- One of Ferguson’s key demands is his players’ work either – striker Robin van Persie is not only leading the Premier League’s goal scoring charts this season, but has made more clearances than any other forward in the league with 31;
- Patrice Evra has enjoyed a fine season, winning 64.1 per cent of 82 tackles, completing 624 passes in the opposition half, and delivering 42 crosses, notching up six assists and four goals;
- On the opposite flank Rafael has made 111 defensive contributions including 52 interceptions, while winning 49 of 82 attempted tackles, and has also completed 531 passes in the opposition half;
- Swansea face United shortly after holding Manchester City to a scoreless draw and then beating Wigan Athletic 3-2 with goals from Angel Rangel, Itay Schechter and Dwight Tendalli;
- Ashley Williams garnered Sir Alex’ criticism earlier this season, but showed his value last weekend by making four crucial blocks – the joint highest by a player in the Index;
- Williams has made 388 defensive contributions this season – tackles won, interceptions, blocks and clearances – 50 more than his nearest rival, Fulham’s Brede Hangeland;
- Williams’ defensive partner Chico attempted his 100th tackle of the season in the last round of games – one of 22 players in the Index to have done so, and while being one of only five to have maintained a winning tackle percentage of over 60 per cent.
Manchester United’s performances this Christmas may be patchy, but the same cannot be said for manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The great Scot started the week fearing for Robin van Persie’s life and ended it by deriding Newcastle United as that “wee club from the north east”. It has been truly spectacular stuff from a deliciously feisty Ferguson.
But while Sir Alex returned to limelight-hogging form, the manager should be more concerned with United’s propensity to ship soft goals as in-form West Bromwich Albion visit Old Trafford on Saturday. Indeed, with West Brom up to fifth place in the Premier League table, and United likely to rotate for the third game in a week, the fixture has significant ‘banana skin’ potential.
Still, while United shipped four preventable goals in the past week it cost the Reds just the two dropped points at Swansea City last weekend, leaving Ferguson’s side seven clear of rivals Manchester City – a lead so healthy that complacency is now a genuine threat.
Good, then, that Ferguson can call on more resources than against Newcastle United on Wednesday night, with Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa all likely to be involved at some point according the the 70-year-old manager.
“We’re hoping maybe Young will be ready and Daniel Welbeck should be ready,” confirmed Ferguson, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve.
“He was ill on Tuesday night but I think he should be okay. At least that’s a couple of bodies back fresh for us. We’ll just assess the rest in terms of tiredness. We need to assess players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs as I think, at their age, [the match versus Newcastle] took a lot out of them.
“Rooney is out for at least another two games. He was a bit better yesterday. We’re going to assess Phil Jones but I don’t think he’ll be ready. Shinji wanted to do a warm-up and training on the pitch and he is getting close. I could maybe put him on the bench tomorrow depending on who is available.”
Ferguson may opt to rest van Persie, with the manager previously insisting that none of his players would feature in all four games over the festive period. Antonio Valencia is long over due a break, while Tom Cleverley should return to the starting line-up. Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa could be in line for a surprise start.
Meanwhile, with Jones not certain to be fit, Ferguson may again call on Chris Smalling at right-back, while Rio Ferdinand could drop to the bench for captain Nemanja Vidić.
That balance has proven to be a challenge for United this season, with the back-four and midfield dynamic causing the Reds plenty of defensive problems. United has shipped 28 Premier League goals this season, which is just five fewer than bottom club Queens Park Rangers. United conceded fewer during title-winning Premier League campaigns in 2007, 2008 and 2009, while Ferguson’s side has managed just four clean sheets all season.
“When you are conceding goals at any level you want to put it to a stop,” admits defender Ferdinand. “This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that. We need to make a big effort now to push on. We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out.”
Ferdinand’s are fine words, of course, but a sentiment that has been echoed season long. And while West Brom have scored just 12 goals away from the Hawthornes this season, few will bet on a United shut-out by 5pm on Saturday. With van Persie potentially on the bench Welbeck and Javier Hernández will need to add to one and 10 goals, respectively, this season.
Meanwhile, Steve Clarke is without injured defenders Jonas Olsson and Goran Popov, and midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, although George Thorne has returned from a loan spell at Peterborough to ease a heavy injury burden.
The visitors’ injuries and history suggest a home win, with United having never lost to West Brom in the Premier League era. Indeed, the Baggies’ last victory at Old Trafford was a 5-3 triumph almost 35 years ago.
Still, with the Midlanders riding high, there is plenty of confidence in Clarke’s squad ahead of the trip north, not least from former Red, Ben Foster.
“I’ve lost every time I’ve been back there and I got ‘pumped’ 5-0 with Birmingham then we lost 2-0 there last year,” said Foster.
“It’s special to play at Old Trafford, but with the way our team is I don’t think anybody gets too excited about games like that. There are a lot of teams who go there like rabbits in the headlights and get starstruck by it all but I don’t think we’re that sort of team. We will go there, business as usual, looking to get some points.”
Moreover, West Brom’s tally of 33 points is the highest the club has achieved at this stage of a Premier League campaign.
But with the carrot of a huge lead heading into the New Year, Ferguson’s team should gain focus for the weekend’s clash. Whether Ferguson’s back-four can keep a clean sheet is another matter – a good question for the manager’s next press conference, perhaps.
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 29 December 2012, 3pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Büttner; Carrick, Cleverley; Young, Kagawa, Welbeck; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Ferdinand, Evra, Scholes, Valencia, Powell, Giggs, van Persie, Macheda
West Brom (4-5-1): Foster; Tamas, Ridgewell, McAuley, Jones; Morrison, Brunt, Gera, Dorrans, Fortuné; Lukaku. Subs from: Myhill, Rosenberg, Long, Odemwingie, El Ghanassy, Jara, Reid
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Garratt, C Breakspear
Fourth official: P Dowd
West Brom: LLLDWW
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, West Brom 0, Draw 2
Overall: United 51, West Brom 40, Draw 29
- van Persie’s goal against Newcastle was his 13th of the Premier League season, having come from 63 efforts at goal with 53.7 per cent on target, and an average of 4.84 shots per goal;
- van Persie’s effort at the other end of the pitch is also important – the Dutchman has made 20 clearances so far this season, more than any other striker in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- With three goals from just five shots at goal Jonny Evans leads the Index for goals to shots ratio;
- While Wayne Rooney may not have scored in United’s recent game against Swansea, his seven shots on target is the joint highest by a player in a single game this season;
- West Brom have enjoyed back to back 2-1 victories over the Christmas fixtures so far, with Chris Brunt, Zoltan Gera and Romelu Lukaku on target;
- Lukaku has scored six in the Premier League this season, getting 81.25 per cent of his 32 efforts at goal on target at an average of 5.33 shots per goal;
- Gera has scored four this season, coming from just 16 chances, and has also completed 233 passes in the opposition half – more than any other West Brom player;
- Chris Brunt scored his first of the season against QPR, although has five assists to his name – has also delivered more crosses than any other West Brom player with 28.
Midfielder Tom Cleverley returns to Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting squad for Sunday’s clash with West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. The 22-year-old has missed most of the campaign with an injury to his left ankle, although the latest knock, which kept the midfielder out of matches against Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur and Athletic Bilbao, was to the right. But Cleverley’s return for the clash with Roy Hodgson’s Midlanders offers Ferguson additional options as Manchester United looks to bounce back from European defeat on Thursday night.
The 3-2 home loss to Athletic came amid the backdrop of some truly calamitous defending – a scenario that Ferguson knows his side must not repeat against in-form West Brom at Old Trafford. Hodgson’s side has won three on the spin, including a victory over Chelsea last weekend, and a thumping 5-1 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Indeed, Ferguson must balance the need to select a strong side against Athletic in Bilbao on Thursday, if United is to progress in the Europa League, with the challenge of maintaining the domestic pursuit of Manchester City.
“We’ve got to recover from the Bilbao defeat,” said the United manager.
“At this moment we are finding it difficult to balance the two together, playing Thursday-Sunday. We are finding it more difficult than we thought. We are finding it more difficult than playing Wednesday-Saturday in the Champions League. We don’t know why it is, but it seems that way. We are not used to it, obviously, and to marry the two together we need a big squad of players.
“It definitely looks like the title is a two-horse race and I don’t think either of us is going to drop a lot of points, but points will be dropped and if we were to drop points it would be crucial – for either team.
“The players know the challenge is there and we have a great opportunity to kick on after the great result at Spurs and hopefully we’ll manage to do that.”
Cleverley is unlikely to start, with Paul Scholes set to return alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield, but Ferguson will be delighted with the youngster’s latest comeback. Cleverley started the season brightly before injury struck in September. Should Anderson suffer no ill reaction to half an hour against Athletic on Thursday, the Brazilian could also make the bench.
Meanwhile, in attack Danny Welbeck is likely to come back into Ferguson’s side for Javier Hernández, with the Mexican starting the defeat to Athletic. Most surprisingly,
French youngster Paul Pogba is set to return to Ferguson’s squad after being left out in recent weeks – it will fuel new speculation that the 18-year-old has signed a contract with the club, despite strong rumours he had agreed a summer move to Juventus.
“I think Tom will be involved. Obviously the problem when you have players out for such a long time is when you can get them back into the fray. For instance, Ando played for half an hour and it was a good half-hour for him as he’d not played for two months. We’ll have to look at that issue. I imagine he’ll be doubtful for Sunday.
“I’ll make one or two changes. Scholes is available and so are Nani and Rio Ferdinand to get the freshness back in. I will maybe gamble with a couple on Sunday for Thursday’s game. West Brom are in a bit of form. But we’re at home and we’re expected to win our games at home and hopefully we can put [Thursday’s] result behind us.”
Defeat to Athletic was the most calamitous of an awful European season for United. In five home matches United has won just once, and that came against Romainian side Oţelul Galaţi. Poor form at home has cost United points domestically too, with Blackburn Rovers and City beating the Reds at Old Trafford already this season.
This points to a difficult fixture for Ferguson’s side, with West Brom excelling on the road this season – only City and United has a better away record than the Midlands outfit in the current campaign.
Meanwhile, Carrick, who has been in superb form since returning to the side in November, says that United must now focus if the Reds’ are to claim a 20th domestic title in May.
“Just because we have come through a tough two months doesn’t mean we will sail through the next two nicely,” Carrick told Sky Sports.
“We are not getting carried away and we are not taking anything for granted. We know how quickly it can come back and bite us. Since I have been here, we have always been up against someone, whether that is two teams or three. With it being City and so local, it does develop into something different. At the same time it is about winning games and focusing on ourselves.”
The visitors arrive in fine form and captain Chris Brunt could make a first start for the Baggies in two months after recovering from a broken foot. Billy Jones should be fit to start at right-back, but Jerome Thomas is struggling with a hamstring injury and is set to miss out.
Manager Hodgson praised his side for winning three in a row, but has challenged the Midlanders to come up with a ‘coming of age’ result in Manchester. As Ajax, Athletic, Blackburn and City have found out this season, Old Trafford is no longer the fortress it once was.
“We all understand how difficult three straight wins in the Barclays Premier League is,” said the former Liverpool manager.
“When you get that situation you really have to enjoy it and be very happy about it – but at the same time make sure it doesn’t lead to any complacency. There is no good winning three in a row if you then lose three in a row. We need to try and keep those points coming in.
“It’s going to be a very tough ask at Old Trafford, as it is for any club going there. But at least we go there with some wind in our sails. If you can back a good result up with another very good result against a top team, it would be a sort of coming of age result for us.”
Defeat is a result United supporters, players and managers cannot countenance. With just 11 fixtures remaining in the Premier League, and United two points adrift of City in the title race, there is now little room for error. History is on United’s side though – West Brom has never beaten the Reds in the Premier League, and not secured a victory over Manchester’s finest since a 2-0 home win in March 1984.
Ferguson and players will know this is no time to change that pattern of results.
Manchester United versus West Bromwich Albion, Premier League, Old Trafford, 11 March 2012, 2pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Nani, Scholes, Carrick, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Fabio, Smalling, Giggs, Park, Anderson, Cleverley, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov, Owen.
West Brom (4-5-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Odemwingie, Andrews, Mulumbu, Morrison, Brunt; Fortune. Subs from: Reid, Tamas, Long, Fulop, Shorey, Dorrans, Long, Cox
West Brom: LDLWWW
- Manchester United kept to within two points of league leaders Manchester City with a 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotpsur last weekend – Wayne Rooney’s 18th goal of the season and two from Ashley Young secured the points;
- Young’s goals took his total for the season to four in the Premier League goals from 34 shots at goal with 71 per cent on target. His brace against Spurs catapulted the 26-year-old back into the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index top 100;
- Meanwhile, Rooney’s goals have come from 95 shots at goal with 65 per cent on target;
- Once again Michael Carrick covered the most ground for United, with 6.02 miles – it was the sixth time in a row the Geordie has covered the most ground for the Reds;
- United’s evergreen midfielder Paul Scholes has not looked out of place since returning to the Premier League in January, and has completed 208 passes in his opponent’s half so far this season, averaging one every 2 minutes 15 seconds. Scholes is the second most prolific passer of the ball in the Premier League discounting those who have played fewer than 100 passes this season;
- Visitors West Brom sealed the end of Andre Villas Boas’ reign at Chelsea with a 1-0 victory at the Hawthorns last weekend;
- Gareth McAuley’s late goal earned the Baggies three points, lifted Roy Hodgson’s side to ninth place in the Premier League;
- McAukley’s goal was his second in the Premier League this season, coming from an efficient eight shots at goal;
- Youssuf Mulumbu covered the most ground for West Brom in that game with 6.32 miles.Officials
Referee: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire)
Assistants: D Richardson, W Smallwood
Fourth Official: C Foy
So here it is, three months on from Manchester United’s coronation as Premier League champions in May and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is ready to mount a spirited defence. Installed as favourites from the off, United is seeking a 20th domestic championship in what could still be Ferguson’s final season in charge at Old Trafford. In the Scot’s way are Manchester City and Chelsea, each desperate to land silverware over the next nine months, Arsenal, reeling from Cesc Fabregas’ loss, and Liverpool, resurgent under Kenny Dalglish.
Indeed, United’s campaign could not start with a more difficult programme over the next two months. Ferguson’s outfit faces each of last season’s top six sides before Christmas, while the United manager wrestles with a much-changed team. New signings Ashley Young and David de Gea should make their Premier League debuts for the club in United’s opening fixture against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes on Sunday. Meanwhile, teenager Phil Jones should make the bench, and returning loanee Tom Cleverley is in the squad after impressing last weekend.
However, United kicks off its defence with up to six players missing. Ferguson is definitely without concussion victim Javier Hernández, along with Antonio Valencia, who has a knee problem, and virus afflicted Darren Fletcher. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Danny Welbeck could also miss United’s opener with injury. Rafael da Silva will not be involved after dislocating his shoulder on Friday.
Hernández is four weeks away from full fitness according to the 69-year-old United manager, while Carrick was forced to pull out of England’s squad during the week with a tight hamstring and Evra missed France’s match with a knock. Carrick could make the game but Evra is rated doubtful. Fletcher and Valencia are now back in full training but are unlikely to be ready for the first team until late August.
“We’ve got a doubt with Patrice Evra,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“He got an injury last Sunday, he missed the France game. We’ll give him until tomorrow but he is doubtful. Darren Fletcher’s training very well and he’ll play in the Reserves on Monday, so will Valencia. Chicharito is still maybe 10 days away from taking part in any football training. It’s not a concern, it’s just a precaution given the fact he had concussion a couple of years back.
“They’re the only injuries we’ve got really. We’ve got a strong squad at the moment, a big squad and I’ll be taking 22 players down to West Brom.”
Ferguson’s key selection decision may come in central midfield, with the club privately briefing media on Thursday night that the bid for Internazionale midfielder Wesley Sneijder is now dead. The Dutchman’s £200,000 per week wage demands have seemingly scuppered a deal that would have cost United up to £100 million over a five-year contract.
In the Dutchman’s stead – with Samir Nasri off to City this week – Ferguson will choose from Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Carrick and Cleverley in central midfield. Cleverley excelled against City in the Community Shield at Wembley and Ferguson admits that the second-half performance from his young side has given the Scot much food for thought ahead of the Baggies tie.
However, with Darron Gibson consigned to the reserves Ferguson is desperately short of central midfield options. Whether there is a plan B that includes dipping into the market is as yet undefined.
“I think picking my team is made easier by the second-half performance last week in some ways,” added Ferguson.
“I still have to respect the experience of the ones who came off at half-time. When you’re 2-0 down in these big games, you don’t expect what we saw. But Welbeck has played two or three times for us at Wembley in the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-final, so, for him, we know his temperament for the big occasion.
“What we wanted to find out was how Jones equipped himself, Smalling and Cleverley too, and they did fantastic. We should know about Cleverley because he’s been with us a long time, he’s been with us since he was 12 years of age. You get to know boys in depth during that time, you get to know their temperament and their character.
“The only reason I didn’t start Cleverley was I just felt the powerful players they have in midfield like Yaya Toure made me a bit cautious about playing him from the start.”
Elsewhere Ferguson is likely to select experience in last season’s top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov, even if Welbeck passes a late fitness test. The youngster played 85 minutes against City at Wembley, leaving Berbatov fighting for his place in Ferguson’s team
Indeed, Michael Owen might be in line for a start but for a minor knock picked up on United’s tour of the United States this summer.
If competition for places in almost all positions characterises United’s squad this season, then it is required with a highly competitive campaign ahead. Ferguson believes that up to six teams are in competition for the Premier League title, with the ‘real stuff’ beginning this weekend.
“They all knew last week was the Community Shield,” said the United boss.
“It was not the real stuff. That starts on Sunday. Wembley was an occasion. There was rivalry and everyone was motivated. We have to show that in every game. It is going to be tough. It will be a hard campaign, it always is. We will waken up to the fact last week was a different game.
“City are still short of a bit of fitness, have Aguero to come in, Tevez to come back and they might buy another two players.The experience Chelsea have is better than anyone. Terry, Drogba and Cech have been there for yonks. They have been involved in the last seven titles. You cannot, in any way, dismiss them.
“The expectation will be on Liverpool to improve given the money they have spent and you can’t rule Arsenal out either. They used to talk about a top four. Now it is the top six. That is even more interesting for everyone.”
If the Reds are to wrap up a 20th championship the Scot believes his side must improve away from home, starting with West Brom on Sunday. While United dropped just two points at Old Trafford, the away record was worse than any title-winning side since the mid-1970s. United won just five away games last season; just two sides have ever won a 20 team title with fewer away wins: Newcastle United in 1906-07 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1929-30.
That away form will face another stern test on Sunday, with Roy Hodgson revitalising the Baggies since joining as manager last winter. West Brom comfortably avoided relegation and will be targeting a top half finish come May.
Hodgson will be without Steven Reid who has a torn calf muscle but Peter Odemwingie’s ankle and Youssouf Mulumbu’s abdominal strain have cleared in time to play. Meanwhile, winger Jerome Thomas and midfielder Paul Scharner will play if fit and new £7 million signing Shane Long could make his début.
West Bromwich Albion versus Manchester United, Premier League, The Hawthorns, Sunday 14 August, 4pm.
Albion (4-4-2): Foster; Jara Reyes, Tamas, Olsson, Shorey; Brunt, Mulumbu, Scharner, Dorrans; Long, Odemwingie. Subs from: Fulop, Fortuné, Dawson, Roofe, Mantom, Jones, Mattock, Cox, Thorne, Wood, Thomas, Tchoyi, Morrison.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Berbatov. Subs from: Lindegaard, Jones, Evans, Cleverley, Giggs, Park, Diouf, Welbeck, Owen,
West Brom: n/a
Mike Jones (Chester)