What had begun as an extremely promising week against Liverpool quickly descended into farce, as Manchester United ignominiously crashed out of the Champions League, after a meek 2-1 home defeat to Sevilla. United were extremely poor, with Jose Mourinho’s safety-first approach hindering, rather than helping the side, and the FA Cup is now the only chance of silverware this season. It is Brighton in the way of a Wembley semi-final on Saturday.
There has been a storm of criticism from the media and fans alike following Tuesday’s defeat, and Mourinho possibly made matters worse by referring to his own defeats of United at this stage of the Champions League, while manager of Porto and Real Madrid, as proof that United should be used to exiting this early. This has prompted the first real signs of discontent and revolt amongst United’s fanbase, and it will be interesting to see how Old Trafford reacts if the game is not going United’s way on Saturday.
Nevertheless, with this representing the only chance of winning a trophy this season, the players and the manager need to step up, and ensure that Brighton are not just beaten, but beaten comfortably, to restore some faith and confidence in the United faithful. Anything but that, and Old Trafford could be a very uncomfortable place to be on Saturday evening.
I attempt to pick what would be United’s best team in the circumstances:
GK: David de Gea – While Sergio Romero may have got a look-in if the season was playing out differently, the loss to Sevilla means that this game has now shot up in importance, and accordingly de Gea has to play. He was maybe slightly at fault for Sevilla’s second goal on Tuesday night, but that is a very minor blot on what was an accomplished performance over the two legs, which was sadly not backed up by any of his colleagues.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Valencia has not been having the best of games recently; however he remains the best right-back at the club, and will need to provide much more of an attacking threat than he has shown in recent games.
CBs: Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling – Again, had the season panned out differently, I would have probably advocated for Victor Lindelof to start this game. But given the circumstances, United’s best available centre-back pairing must be deployed. Bailly has been excellent since returning from injury, making some vital blocks and showing leadership that the defence was sorely missing. Smalling has been his usual underwhelming self, mixing great defensive solidity with poor positioning and passing on the ball, often in the same game. However, he remains ahead of Lindelof at the moment, as much due to the Swede’s lack of confidence as his own performances. United need to try and keep a clean sheet here, and both Bailly and Smalling will have to be wary against a Brighton attack that has looked revitalized in recent weeks.
LB: Luke Shaw – Notwithstanding Ashley Young’s excellent performance against Liverpool, Luke Shaw must get a game here. He will provide a greater attacking thrust, while he is defensively competent as well, and Mourinho must use this opportunity both to rest Young and give Shaw valuable playing time, else he risks alienating the left-back.
DM: Michael Carrick – Nemanja Matic has looked exhausted in recent weeks, as he has had virtually no rest, owing to Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini’s injuries. With Carrick apparently fit again, judging by his recent appearances on the United bench, this seems like the perfect opportunity to give Matic the night off, while simultaneously ensuring that the level of quality does not drop off. Carrick has announced his retirement this season, and while he does not possess any mobility, his eye for a pass and calm, composed manner in midfield are sorely needed in a United midfield which has lacked precisely those qualities for a while now.
CMs: Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini – Pogba seems to have entered a strange place in his United career; disposable and indispensable at the same time. While it is true that United have played well in his absence, it is also true that the drop-off in attacking quality in his absence has been staggering. Pogba simply has to start this game, and he needs to put in a performance full of swagger and confidence, which would go some way in convincing Mourinho that he needs to develop and mould this mercurial talent, rather than cast him by the wayside. Fellaini would be a good partner for him in this setup, as he would not be needed to provide quality on the ball, not with Pogba and Carrick playing. He would be able to create a nuisance of himself, and would be a good foil for the more subtle arts of his fellow midfielders.
RW: Juan Mata – One selection that Jose got completely wrong on Tuesday; Mata should have started given that there was absolutely nobody to link play between midfield and attack. He should get his chance against Brighton, and hopefully his knack for scoring big goals in big games comes to the fore again.
LW: Anthony Martial – Assuming the Frenchman is fully fit, he should start; if not, Marcus Rashford should. In either case, Alexis Sanchez needs to be dropped; he has not contributed sufficiently since his arrival to state a case for continued indulgence, and Mourinho ideally needs to crack the whip and establish that his team is a meritocracy. This does seem wishful thinking; in any case, should Martial start, expect him to pick up where he left off from before his injury, leading whoever the Brighton right-back is on a merry dance.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – The Belgian has been United’s best performer over the past six weeks or so, as he has finally married his work-rate and link-up play with goalscoring. Crucially, Lukaku also seems to “get” United, as his passionate celebrations when scoring or even witnessing his teammates score have shown. His claim post the Sevilla game that some of his teammates went into “hiding” during the game was obviously going to be retracted; nevertheless, it shows a man who is hurting at the manner of the exit, and he should be raring to put things right, albeit in a different competition, on Saturday.
Bench: Romero, Lindelof, Young, McTominay, Lingard, Rashford, Alexis
United absolutely need to win this game; anything less and it could spark a mutiny inside Old Trafford. Much like last season when the Europa League would define whether the campaign was a success or failure, the FA Cup is now the basket in which all of United’s eggs are placed, even though it seems unlikely that Jose Mourinho would be removed at the end of the season if United failed to win it.