Well, how do you follow that?!? United produced a stunning display of lethal counter-attacking football on Sunday afternoon in North London to beat a very good Arsenal side 3-1, in a game which some pundits are already predicting will be one of the most entertaining games of the entire season. A rapid double-salvo from Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard gave the visitors a 2-0 lead after only 11 minutes, and having weathered an Arsenal onslaught which saw Alexandre Lacazette reduce the deficit to a single goal just after half-time, a second breakaway goal from Lingard on the hour mark finished the goal scoring, but that was only down to an exceptional display of net-tending from our Spanish no.1 David de Gea, who was simply beyond belief!
The only negative, and it is a huge ‘downer’, was the straight red card shown to midfield maestro Paul Pogba by referee Andre Marriner for stepping on the back of Hector Bellerin’s leg midway through the 2nd half, a decision which United have decided not to appeal against, meaning Pogba will miss the crucial Manchester Derby at Old Trafford this coming Sunday. I’m not quite sure exactly what Bellerin was trying to do at the time, and there is an argument that Pogba simply couldn’t avoid stepping on the defender due to his unorthodox position in relation to the ball, but there’s no point getting into that debate in this article – it’s a crushing blow to United, and one we will have to find a way to overcome if we are to beat Manchester City at the weekend.
By contrast, tonight’s final Group A match-up with C.S.K.A. Moscow should be a case of simply going out onto our own pitch and doing enough to get a result against a side that we are better than – and that’s not to be arrogant, rather stating a fact. We won 4-1 in Moscow back in September, and despite them picking up several decent results against F.C. Basel and Benfica in the intervening weeks, the Russian team are, at best, merely competent European campaigners. A draw will be enough to confirm United’s presence in the knock-out phase of the competition in the spring, and with the derby game coming up, I expect a bit of rotation this evening.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-4-2)
GK: Sergio Romero – David de Gea deserves a rest after the extensive work-out he received at the hands of Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and co. on Sunday, and I would give him a break ahead of another gruelling game against City this weekend. Sergio is a very able deputy whom I have no concerns selecting.
RB: Matteo Darmian – Tony Valencia was his usual excellent self at Arsenal, and like de Gea, deserves a rest ahead of the Manchester Derby. Darmian is a solid if unspectacular full-back who should be more than good enough to do a job for us against the Russian outfit.
LB: Luke Shaw – As with the right-back position, on the left I’d give Ashley Young a ‘night off’ and allow our young English left-back to stake a claim for a starting shirt with a good performance this evening. Luke has a decent left peg on him and can hopefully contribute going forwards as well as handling his defensive duties. He has been out for a long time and it would be great to see him doing well in a United shirt again.
CBs: Victor Lindelof & Chris Smalling – with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones not match-fit, I’d give Marcos Rojo a rest and allow these two to partner up in the middle. Victor was again very steady at the Emirates, and is starting to show why the club paid Benfica £31 million for his services in the summer. Smalling isn’t my favourite player, but he is more than good enough to handle anything C.S.K.A. Moscow can throw at him.
CMs: Ander Herrera & Paul Pogba – Pogba is suspended for the next three Premier League fixtures following his dismissal at Arsenal, so I’d give him a run out tonight ahead of his enforced absence – the lad is a genuinely world-class midfielder, and I’d hope he can dominate against lesser opponents and orchestrate a home win. Herrera will almost certainly start for us against City now, and needs to get some game-time under his belt, as well as trying to recapture his form from last season. Ander could do with putting in an impressive performance to head-off the growing disquiet at his relatively poor form over the past few months.
RM: Juan Mata – the little man has lost his place in the team recently, and like Herrera, could do with putting in a good display against the Russians. Jesse Lingard has propelled his claims for starting every game into the stratosphere with several exceptional performances in recent weeks, and deserves a rest ahead of the City game on Sunday.
LM: Marcus Rashford – Anthony Martial was unlucky to get substituted at Arsenal after another assured performance, which included a superb ‘round the corner’ flick to Lingard for United’s second goal on 11 minutes. I’d give him a rest on the bench and start our young English forward this evening. Marcus has been somewhat overshadowed in recent weeks and I’m sure he’ll be itching to show what he can do against a sluggish Russian rearguard.
CFs: Romelu Lukaku & Zlatan Ibrahimović – Lukaku was very impressive with his touches in the build-up play for two of our goals against Arsenal, though he was probably a bit disappointed not to have had any decent chances of putting his own name on the scoreboard. He has already scored twice against Igor Akinfeev in Moscow, when some schoolboy-standard defending aided his cause, and you wouldn’t bet against Romelu grabbing another goal or two this evening. I’d start Zlatan alongside him, a perfect opportunity to see the two operating together without there being too much pressure on a result; Zlatan needs to build up his game-time after recovering from his serious knee injury, and his presence alone will ‘ratchet up’ the atmosphere within Old Trafford.
BENCH: J. Pereira, Martial, Mkhitaryan, Blind, Fellaini, Lingard, McTominay.
In the context of the importance of the game we have just played at Arsenal and the importance of the game we will play against City on Sunday, tonight’s final Champions League Group game should pale in comparison simply because it will take a truly jaw-dropping defeat to the Russian team to prevent United progressing to the latter stages of the competition. That said, we should be more than capable of beating C.S.K.A. Moscow, and I’d suggest complacency is our biggest enemy this evening, with the feeling remaining since our victory over Benfica at Old Trafford last month that United ‘have already qualified’. That is not strictly the case, and I hope Jose Mourinho sends the team out with the mindset of putting this tie ‘to bed’ as quickly as we can; for their part, C.S.K.A. know that in all likelihood only a win will suffice for them, and even then they will be hoping Benfica do them a favour in Lisbon by beating F.C. Basel. This is not quite a ‘dead rubber’ but isn’t far from it. The fringe and/or returning 1st team players who get the opportunity to play this evening should be looking at this game as a good opportunity to put themselves firmly in the manager’s thinking for the big Premier League games we will be competing in over the next few weeks; they will do that by putting in very good performances.