Manchester United, fresh from a simply superb comeback victory over crosstown rivals Manchester City last Saturday, face the team who currently occupy bottom position in the Premier League table this Sunday as West Bromwich Albion make the trip north to Old Trafford for probably the last time for a while. The Baggies are marooned at the bottom, with only 21 points from 33 games played, and look certain to swap places in the Championship next season with their bitter local rivals Wolves, who by contrast are flying high at the top of their division.
The Red Devils, as usual, put their long-suffering fans through a gamut of emotions over the course of an electrifying 90+ minutes last Saturday evening in East Manchester. An absolutely abject opening 45 minutes, which saw the away side fortunate to only trail 2-0 at the interval, was then followed by a scintillating 2nd half showing to snatch a 3-2 victory in the unlikeliest of places, with the unlikeliest of winning goalscorers in Chris Smalling!
We can only reflect now on what might have been if needless points hadn’t been dropped to teams like Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Southampton before Christmas, but it was still lovely to wipe the smirks from a few City fans’ faces, even if only delaying the inevitable title triumph by the Blues for a week or two.
West Brom have endured a miserable season, during which they have fired two managers in Tony Pulis and his replacement Alan Pardew, who all but destroyed any semblance of credibility he had left as a Premier League manager with a disastrous run of results in the four months he was in charge of the team, finishing with only 3 wins in 21 games.
It almost goes without saying that I expect United to dominate proceedings at Old Trafford on Sunday and find a way to convert some of the chances they create to take the 3 points on offer. Manchester City play at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday evening, and if they should win that testing encounter, United will need to dispatch West Brom to ensure City don’t win the title on Sunday.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (fluid 4-2-2-2)
GK: David de Gea – David produced a magnificent save from point-blank range (again) to deny Sergio Aguero last Saturday, and cement his reputation as the best goalkeeper in the world. West Brom will find him a tough hurdle to overcome.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony initially had a torrid time against City, for whom Leroy Sane was a constant menace, though he, like United overall, improved greatly as the game wore on. I’d expect him not to be as overworked defensively on Sunday, but hopefully he is just as involved in helping to craft attacking moves for the home side.
LB: Ashley Young – Despite my personal preference for Luke Shaw in this position, Jose Mourinho seems determined to stick with Young, which will probably spell the end for Shaw at United this summer. Ashley was very, very fortunate not to concede a penalty for a reckless challenge on Sergio Aguero last Saturday after United had taken a 3-2 lead, and I’d hope he will learn from the experience and not be so quick to leave his feet in future.
CBs: Eric Bailly & Chris Smalling – Neither of these two painted themselves with any glory during a shockingly inept 1st half display at City; Bailly was constantly caught out of position, whilst Smalling was once again embarrassed by his lack of ability to defend simple corner routines, easily brushed aside by Vincent Kompany as he headed City into a lead that could have proved fatal for United’s hopes of preventing City winning the title in front of them. Smalling somewhat redeemed himself by getting on the end of a delicious free-kick by Alexis Sanchez for the decisive goal, but serious questions remain about the ability of United’s centre-halves to deal with routine attacking moves from opponents. Hopefully they can get their collective act together and shut West Brom out on Sunday, but the longer-term futures of the likes of Smalling and Phil Jones (more due to lengthy absences through injury with Jones) at United remain uncertain.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – These two formed a superb partnership against our neighbours, and I’d have no hesitation in asking them to do a similar job against the Baggies, who should pose less of a threat to our defence. Herrera also has the ability to get forward and help support attacking moves, as he proved when laying the ball into Paul Pogba’s path for our opening goal last Saturday.
AMs: Paul Pogba & Jesse Lingard – Pogba eventually stole the show at City with two superbly taken goals…but that simply adds to the frustration of many Reds that our Frenchman isn’t freed up by Mourinho to have this sort of impact in every game he plays; for too long has he been shackled into defensive duties alongside Matic, duties which he isn’t comfortable carrying out and which, more importantly, rob us of Paul’s influence in proceedings further up the pitch. I’d allow him to play in an advanced position alongside the industrious Lingard against West Brom, who are sure to come and put men behind the ball to try to frustrate United as long as possible. Guile, craft and patience will be the answer needed to solve that problem, all of which Pogba and Lingard are more than capable of providing.
CFs: Romelu Lukaku & Alexis Sanchez – the little Chilean had arguably his best outing in a United shirt last Saturday, playing a pivotal role in all three United goals, combining his sublime touch and vision with his usual industry…all the signs are evident that Alexis is finally finding some understanding with his team-mates, and I certainly wouldn’t bet against him grabbing his third United goal on Sunday afternoon. Big Romelu put in a ton of work to run the City defenders ragged during that 2nd half United onslaught, and whilst he was never in any danger of extending his own personal goals tally for the season, his efforts will have been appreciated by everyone at United- I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t have a few chances to add a goal or two to his collection on Sunday.
BENCH: Joel Pereira, Lindelof, Martial, McTominay, Mata, Shaw, Rashford.
The victory over City, coupled with Chelsea dropping more points at home to West Ham United on Sunday, means United are now virtually guaranteed to finish in the Champions League places for next season’s competition; indeed, finishing in 2nd position should now be well within the capabilities of this squad. A game at home to the bottom club, who arrive with precious little belief left that they can avoid what now looks like certain relegation to the Championship in a matter of weeks, should represent a guaranteed win, and I hope that is exactly what plays out.
If (and it’s by no means a certainty) Manchester City have beaten Tottenham Hotspur by the time we take to the pitch on Sunday, the players will know that only a victory will suffice to make our neighbours wait yet another week before confirming their title triumph- I’d hope they don’t need that extra motivation to condemn West Brom to yet another defeat, but it’s there if necessary…
Come on Reds, let’s finish this season off by claiming as many Premier League points as we can!