Having somewhat recovered from the abysmal showing against Manchester City in the Derby last Sunday with a narrow, fairly mundane 1-0 win over Bournemouth on Wednesday evening, United travel to the West Midlands on Sunday afternoon to take on West Bromwich Albion, now under the guidance of former Newcastle United and Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew.
In tandem with the general mood of disappointment and despondency amongst the fans following the very timid defeat to our Blue neighbours, the game against the Cherries was played out in front of an Old Trafford crowd that had plenty of unoccupied red seats scattered through it, though there were a few moments of genuine excitement to lift the faithful from their slumbers, none more so than Marcus Rashford thundering a ferocious effort from 20 yards against Asmir Begovic’s near upright in front of the Stretford End, the big keeper flailing helplessly at a shot he would never even have got close to had it been a yard further to the right and finding the back of the net.
In the end, a brave header from Romelu Lukaku following a dinked cross from the left by Juan Mata was enough to seal the victory for the Red Devils, and one would hope the big Belgian’s self-confidence will have been boosted by that finish.
I expect Alan Pardew to set his side up to be very hard to beat, as has been the case in all the games he has overseen with the Baggies to date. They gained a well-earned draw at Anfield on Wednesday, with Liverpool frustrated time and time again by a mixture of spirited defending by the visiting defenders and poor final balls by their own forwards. United will need to be clever with our use of the ball in the final third whilst also being vigilant to pacy counter-attacks.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – our keeper was, once again, my Man of the Match against Bournemouth, though in truth none of the saves he had to make were difficult for someone of his ability. As ever, the Baggies forward players will find David a formidable barrier to breach.
RB: Antonio Valencia – the Ecuadorian lad continues to produce solid performances on the right flank, and I’d back him to get the better of a limited player like James McClean in this encounter.
LB: Luke Shaw – Luke, somewhat surprisingly, got a first Premier League start of the season against Bournemouth on Wednesday evening, and once again showed his abilities as a dynamic wing-back, able to get up and down the left flank to both attack and defend as required. If fully fit, I’d have no hesitation letting him have another go at The Hawthorns.
CBs: Chris Smalling & Phil Jones – the shocking news from Jose Mourinho yesterday that Eric Bailly may require surgery on an ankle injury sustained whilst on International duty means we may not see Eric until well into 2018. Thankfully we are well stocked in centre-halves, and with Marcos Rojo recovering from a slight concussion sustained in the Derby, I’d give Smalling and Jones a chance to re-form the partnership they had a few seasons ago, though Victor Lindelof could also feature alongside Phil Jones, who is our most consistent centre-back when he’s fit to play.
CMs: Ander Herrera & Nemanja Matic – with Paul Pogba serving the final game of his three-match suspension on Sunday afternoon, this may be a final chance for Ander Herrera to show he is anything more than simply a ‘reserve’ defensive midfielder at United now. He was dropped to the bench in favour of youngster Scott McTominay on Wednesday evening, with the young man putting in a good performance to justify Mourinho’s faith in giving him a start. Matic could probably do with a rest, having featured in every Premier League game this season so far, but I doubt the manager will see a visit to West Brom as an opportunity to give him that rest, with tough battles against the likes of Jake Livermore and Grzegorz Krychowiak to be won.
RM: Jesse Lingard- Lingard had a quiet evening against the Cherries, lots of hard running and movement as usual, but to little avail, and was withdrawn on 70 minutes for Herrera. I’d give him a start on the right side at The Hawthorns, so he could both help Valencia to keep a muzzle on McClean and also try to break forward to give options for attacking moves.
AM (C): Juan Mata– the little Spaniard showed, yet again, against Bournemouth that with the ball under his spell, he is probably second only to Paul Pogba in the current United squad when it comes to creativity. That asset will be invaluable as we seek to find openings in a home defence which will be resolute and difficult to break down.
LM: Marcus Rashford- Marcus, as has been the ‘norm’ this year, came on for Anthony Martial midway through the 2nd half against Eddie Howe’s men, and almost broke the Stretford End goalposts with a 20-yard rocket moments later! I would give him a start on the left side, where he will torture Allan Nyom with his pace and trickery, as well as getting back to help Shaw keep Hal Robson-Kanu in check.
CF: Romelu Lukaku– Lukaku has been getting a lot of unfair criticism from some quarters recently, which I find odd. Yes, he had a poor game against City, but then you could easily count on one hand the number of United players who DIDN’T play poorly in that game. He scored a brave header to win the points on Wednesday evening, and he’ll be confident of adding to his goal tally against his former club on Sunday IF we can give him some decent service, and at the end of the day you can’t expect a striker to score a lot of goals if you don’t keep him involved in the action.
BENCH: Romero, Martial, Blind, Young, McTominay, Lindelof, Ibrahimović.
Whilst the result at home to Bournemouth was no less than we expected, the margin and manner of that victory were not particularly encouraging, albeit Tony Martial should have made it much more comfortable by converting the easy chance he spurned midway through the 2nd half. I expect a visit to a club fighting to put points on the board to avoid getting sucked into an unforeseen relegation scrap to be a tough assignment, but we certainly have enough quality within the squad to emerge from The Hawthorns with all three points on offer.
Alan Pardew is, in my opinion, a very decent Premier League manager, and he’ll have his men very well motivated to try to get a result against us; many of them will be playing to impress him, and ensure they are not amongst those to be regarded as ‘expendable’ in the January transfer window. We have a few very ‘winnable’ fixtures over the holiday period, and this should be viewed as one of them, though it is certainly not going to be easy.