The Premier League is back, but not as we know it. The World Cup has decimated squads and Manchester United welcome Leicester City to Old Trafford for Friday’s curtain raiser without key stars on show.
United (11) and Leicester (10) are two of the sides hurt deeply by their players’ exertions in Russia.
Similarly, bosses Claude Puel and Jose Mourinho are perhaps two of the most under-pressure managers heading into the new campaign and so both their chances of starting on the right foot have been trodden on.
TALKING POINT – THE PLAYERS WHO AREN’T THERE
With the window shut for English clubs when kick-off arrives, eyes will switch from Twitter timelines to the pitch. However, this fixture is likely to be more about those who aren’t in action, than those who are.
Paul Pogba’s obvious disgruntlement is unlikely to go away after the Frenchman’s failure to push through a move to Barcelona. Whether his motivation for leaving was stronger because of Barca’s appeal or simply to get away from Mourinho remains to be seen but his absence after an extended break casts a large shadow on this fixture.
He was superb during France’s World Cup triumph and the question now is whether he can replicate that this season.
Speaking of large, they do not come much bigger than Harry Maguire and the 25-year-old, who was incessantly linked with United all summer, is also missing from Puel’s starting XI.
Find someone who looks at you the way Harry Maguire looks at Jamie Vardy 😍 pic.twitter.com/RoyueeHHkJ— Leicester City (@LCFC) August 6, 2018
His England team-mate Jamie Vardy will join him on the bench but the picture is far bleaker for Mourinho with 11 senior players missing through injury or doubtful after returning late from Russia.
So, what of the players who are available? Andreas Pereira was deeply impressive in pre-season and is expected to start in midfield alongside Ander Herrera and new signing Fred.
Marcus Rashford, with his freshly pressed No10 shirt, will be the spearhead in Romelu Lukaku’s absence while Alexis Sanchez should be in position to make a flying start having been afforded a first full summer off in nine years.
For the Foxes, James Maddison, the 21-year-old summer signing from Norwich, will make his debut and is one to watch this season as Puel’s string-puller in midfield. And a familiar face for United will be in the heart of Leicester’s defence with Jonny Evans also in line for his first competitive start since switching from relegated West Brom.
KEY BATTLE – RASHFORD V IHEANACHO
In keeping with the theme of absences, two players who are in position to profit most for this clash form an intriguing key battle.
Indeed, Rashford (20) and Kelechi Iheanacho (21) will be given the stage to prove their credentials as the leading men for their sides with Lukaku and Vardy out for United and Leicester respectively.
This is a big season for the talented pair. Iheanacho needs to begin delivering on his potential having at times looked sharp last term but lacking the type of dynamism Puel’s 4-2-3-1 requires.
Ingenuity is certainly one of Rashford’s virtues but consistency has been a vice. He’s taken on the No10 shirt and following in the footsteps of legends like Wayne Rooney should give him all the motivation he needs to produce the goods.
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAY
“I think a team that is working for six weeks minimum, with all the players except one central defender (Maguire) and one striker (Vardy) that can join in the last week and probably be available, I think that is clear, a much better situation for them.”
“For me it’s good for Leicester to keep a valuable player (Maguire), and it’s important to show good ambition for the next season. I can understand some speculation about our player because he has good attributes, but I am happy to keep him and hopefully start a great season.”
WHAT WE THINK – MANCHESTER UNITED 2-0 LEICESTER CITY
We’ve felt the full force of a moody Mourinho this season but look for him to use that energy to propel his side into the driving seat. Leicester limped through the final stages of last season and it’s hard to see Puel changing that feeling.
Clarence Seedorf may have retired from the beautiful game in January 2014 but the Dutch legend, who is the only player in history to have won Champions League medals with three different clubs (Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan), is still in peak physical condition at the age of 42.
The mercurial No10 posted a picture via Instagram, stating that he is training hard despite his playing days being long over.
Seedorf is still involved in the game and on Saturday was announced as the new manager of Cameroon, where fellow cult hero Patrick Kluivert will be his assistant.
It is not his first spell in the dugout and follows quickly off the back of a disappointing stint with La Liga side Deportivo La Coruna, in which he could not prevent the Riazor club from being relegated last season.
This is the time of the year where players train hard and get ready to be able to perform at a high level during the season. Not playing anymore is not an excuse to skip training and even if it’s not always easy to find the motivation, I never stop practicing sport to maintain my physical, mental wellness and fitness. #CS10
Javi Martinez scored the only goal at the Allianz Arena, glancing home a second-half header from a corner, while Bayern forward Arjen Robben had a late strike ruled out for offside.
United, who start their league campaign at home to Leicester on Friday evening, were captained by Alexis Sanchez in Bavaria.
The Chile forward was supported in attack by Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Andreas Pereira, with recent signing Fred partnering Ander Herrera in central midfield.
Jose Mourinho brought a host of youngsters off the bench in the second half, including Tahith Chong and Axel Tuanzebe, while goalkeeper Lee Grant, signed from Stoke in July, came on for David de Gea.
United created little during the match and were unable to find an equaliser in the closing stages.