As our regular Mourinho impersonator Rodney McCain is off enjoying a well-deserved Thanksgiving holiday, I’m stepping into the breach for this week’s clash against Brighton at Old Trafford. United’s free-flowing form from earlier in the season looked to have returned with the win over Newcastle last weekend, but the midweek defeat at Basel has once again stalled momentum. United dominated the game, especially the first half, but did not take their chances, and a late Basel goal means that United have still not confirmed their place in the Champions League knockout rounds. It will take an almighty turn of events to deny United their place; they still should go through as group winners. Nevertheless, with the game against CSKA coming smack-bang in between two hugely important fixtures against Arsenal and Man City, our Portuguese gaffer could’ve done with a dead rubber to rest and protect key players.
United play Brighton on Saturday, and anything other than a thumping win will leave supporters of a Mancunian persuasion disappointed, especially as City do not look like giving up ground anytime soon, and the chasing pack (Chelsea, Spurs) aren’t too far behind. The gaffer’s injury woes look to be easing, with Marcos Rojo returning to the team seven months after injuring his knee in the same game as Zlatan. The Swede is also back, making appearances from the bench in both of United’s last two games, while Paul Pogba has played around 65 minutes in both games. It is no coincidence that United’s return to fluidity has coincided with the Frenchman’s recovery, and he is vital to United’s hopes this season.
With Rojo’s superb performance in midweek in mind, as well as Bailly and Jones’ unavailability, here’s how I see the team lining up: (4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – The Spaniard was rested for the game against Basel, but looks set to return. He’s been in imperious form, and will fancy another clean sheet to further improve what is already the best record in the Premier League so far
RB: Antonio Valencia – Another player who was rested in Europe, with Matteo Darmian stepping in. However, the Italian failed to impress, and our captain will return to resume normal service
CB: Chris Smalling – The England reject has performed well in recent weeks, especially as he has played without a settled partner, as both Jones and Bailly have been unfortunate with injuries. I expect him to continue his recent form and give Gareth Southgate some food for thought
CB: Marcos Rojo – The Argentinian was the best player on the night for United against Basel, showing no signs of rustiness as he defended superbly and even managed to thump an effort against the woodwork in the first half. A Mourinho player through and through, I’d start him over Lindelof, who has yet to completely convince
LB: Ashley Young – What a turnaround for Young; his performances at left-back have made him one of the first names on the teamsheet, so much so that he was one of the chosen few to be rested against Basel. Firmly first-choice now, expect him to return to his marauding best against the Seagulls
CMs: Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic – Matic was on the bench in midweek, while Pogba came off midway through the second half as he builds up his fitness. Mourinho has already stated that he will play a similar number of minutes at the weekend, by which time United should ideally have sealed the game. Brighton will find it a little too difficult to wrest control of midfield from United’s first-choice midfielders
RM: Juan Mata – Rested against Basel, the diminutive Spaniard should return to the lineup. Has been in good form recently, without catching the eye, and his nous and intelligence will be needed against what is likely to be a packed Brighton defence
CAM: Henrikh Mkhitaryan – The Armenian has done the disappearing act, both literally and figuratively. While he had been anonymous on the pitch for weeks, offering very little either offensively or defensively, he has curiously not been named in the last three matchday squads. As the general consensus was that his attacking output had dimmed due to Pogba’s absence, it is intriguing that he has yet to play with the Frenchman since his return. The game against Brighton seems like the perfect opportunity to let him rediscover his mojo, and I expect serious questions to be raised at Jose if he fails to make an appearance
LM: Marcus Rashford – Going by this season’s theme, Rashford should start, given that Martial started the previous game. The Englishman did well against Newcastle last weekend, setting up Pogba with an astute header, and it should be interesting to see how veteran right-back Bruno handles the Mancunian’s pace
CF: Romelu Lukaku – One of Mourinho’s “untouchables”, the Belgian got a morale-boosting goal against the Magpies last weekend, before failing to score in midweek. With Zlatan on the bench and working his way back to full fitness, Lukaku needs to start scoring again if he is to retain his place
Bench: Romero, Shaw, Lindelof, Herrera, Lingard, Martial, Ibrahimovic
United should beat Brighton easily. They have a fearsome home record over the last year or so, and Brighton, like most newly-promoted teams, lack the quality to withstand a sustained barrage. That being said, United cannot get complacent, as the away loss to Huddersfield showed. I expect United’s class to shine through, and ideally Lukaku gets a couple of goals, Pogba bosses midfield, Mkhitaryan does well too and Ibrahimovic comes on and scores with a scorpion/scissor/some previously unimaginable way of kicking the ball. Failing which, a good old-fashioned 1-0 will also do very nicely. Just don’t drop points lads!