Home at last. Manchester United’s road-trip through the festive programme at Aston Villa, Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur and Yeovil Town has stretched the Reds’ unbeaten run to 11 games, but, some might say, with little uptick in performances. Louis van Gaal’s outfit struggled at Villa and Stoke, ran out of steam in north London and took more than an hour to break down League One’s bottom-placed club. Plus ça change in a season where the Reds have been imperious at home and largely impotent on the road.
Sunday afternoon’s fixture with Southampton is set to be another test of United’s commanding home record, which has brought 25 from a possible 30 points this season; a record second only to leaders Chelsea. Ronaldo Koeman’s side remains in contention for European qualification next season, having defied critics – and, perhaps, supporters – who feared regression after the Saints sold over £100 million worth of talent in the summer. Indeed, the south-coast outfit is also recovering strongly from a mid-season wobble that included defeat to United at St Mary’s in December.
United’s 2-1 victory over the Saints was, although atypical in a campaign that has brought just three away wins, symptomatic of a pattern ingrained on the road this season. Southampton dominated, while United’s dysfunctional back-three struggled for coherence, and the Reds found the transition from defence to attack at speed almost impossible. Yet, despite the home side’s 15 shots to United’s three, Van Gaal’s outfit emerged with the points. The pattern is different at home where the “dominance” United’s veteran coach has sought all season is found more easily – in possession, chances created and victories.
So to Sunday, where the Van Gaal’s side is seeking to build new momentum after suffering – if that’s the right word – three draws in the past four Premier League fixtures. Yet, the Reds face the south coast side with an almost fully-fit squad. Van Gaal reported a clean bill of health on Friday, with only winger-turned-wingback Ashley Young on the sidelines. The former Aston Villa player is expected to be out for another six weeks.
Van Gaal has the option to recall dynamic midfielder Ángel di Maria for the Saints’ visit after the Argentinian impressed in a 30 minute cameo at Yeovil, scoring United’s second goal on the break. Meanwhile, Ander Herrera is also ready after appearing as a substitute in victory over the Somerset club. The 25-year-old has not always been first choice this season, but offers the kind of midfield control that the Reds may require against an impressive Southampton midfield.
Elsewhere, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind have returned to full training but may only be fit enough for a place on the bench.
“I’m very happy because we have only one player injured. Can you believe it? Only one. Ashley Young,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“Blind has trained a full week. Ángel di María has played only 20 minutes. I have said I have only one injured player, but I don’t have 100% match-fit players. I have to select the best team and also I have to watch the qualities of Southampton, how I can reduce that quality by my lineup but also by our game plan.
“Rafael da Silva was operated on, and maybe we don’t take any risk with him, but Shaw can also play. Fellaini also trained with us this week.”
There will be no debut, however, for goalkeeping recruit Victor Valdés. The former Barcelona stopper signed on an 18-month deal this week to fuel growing speculation that David de Gea’s time at the club is coming to an end next summer.
Van Gaal insists that Valdés has been retained as his compatriot’s deputy; an odd choice, perhaps, by a player who has appeared at the very highest level since breaking into the Barcelona team under Van Gaal in 2002.
“Nobody is happy to be No2 and he has to have ambition to beat David de Gea, but it shall be very hard for him,” said the Dutchman. “My ambition is that I have the best players who can co-operate with each other to form the best team in the world.”
More than 20 trophies later the five-times Zamora winner says it is a “dream” to be working under his former mentor once again.
“I can already see this is a very special club,” said Valdés. “I worked with Louis van Gaal during my time at Barcelona and to have the opportunity to work with him here at Manchester United is a dream come true.”
Meanwhile, Koeman’s side arrives at Old Trafford having comfortably beaten Arsenal in the Saints’ last Premier League outing. And with the exception of Africa Cup of Nations-bound Sadio Mané, injured Jack Cork and Maya Yoshida, who is at the Asia Cup, Koeman boasts a complete squad for the journey north.
It is a squad that now includes new loanee Eljero Elia, the Dutch winger who started the 2010 World Cup final against Spain, but has seemingly lost his way in recent years.
“I want people to talk positively about me and not negatively,” said the on loan Werder Bremen winger. “This is a very big chance and I will grab it with both hands and do everything to stay at Southampton at the end of the season. I cannot wait to play for Southampton under Ronald Koeman’.”
The 27-year-old could be thrown straight into Southampton’s team in place of Mané, with in-form Dušan Tadić moving into a more central attacking role. Indeed, Elia’s pace could prove useful against a United defence that has not always looked comfortable this season – whether in a five or a four man system.
Speculation is growing that Koeman is being considered for the Barcelona manager’s job, after Luis Enrique’s difficult start to the season. Koeman rubbish media reports this week, but they are testament to the 51-year-old former Barça player’s impact at Southampton this season.
Koeman insists his side is ready to face United after a disappointing draw with Ipswich Town in the FA Cup last week
“The team is looking good, I hope more fresh than they were in the last match against Ipswich Town. We have another tough week in front of us but a nice one because on Sunday we play Manchester United. It’s a great game, a nice stadium and it’s always a pleasure to play there.”
“We know the qualities that they have. You see, little by little, they are growing up. They have more confidence in the team and they have good individual players. They punished us in the first game with those qualities, but as a team we are as strong as Manchester United.”
Still, United enjoys a strong record against Southampton, having won six of the last eight matches between the sides. In fact Southampton haven’t beaten United at Old Trafford since a 2-0 victory 27 years ago this month.
Not that Van Gaal will be counting on victory. Just a much improved performance away from the constraints seemingly felt on the road – and with a fit squad as back-up.
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Jones, Smalling, Evans; Valencia, Carrick, Rooney, Shaw; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Alderweireld, Fonte, Gardos, Bertrand; Schneiderlin, Wanyama; Ward-Prowse, Tadić, Elia; Pellè
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, McNair, Rojo, Blackett, Anderson, Di Maria, Pereira, Blind, Fellaini, Januzaj, Herrera, Wilson
Southampton: Davis, Yoshida, Isgrove, Reed, McCarthy, Targett, Davis, Long
United 115 – Draw 60 – Southampton 30
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D Bryan
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 3-2 Southampton
£1 bet club
Over 4.5 goals @ 11/2
Running total: £(-)10