Manchester United will surely have one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final return leg in Barcelona, but first they need to resuscitate their Premier League top-four hopes when West Ham visit on Saturday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have slipped to sixth following two defeats in their last three league games though the race for the Champions League spots remains tight with Chelsea, in third, only five points ahead, having played a game more.
ROTATION WITHOUT REPERCUSSIONS
With the second leg against Barcelona on the horizon, expect to see a shuffling of the pack from Solskjaer.
But it’s not exactly going to be a case of fielding a weakened team at home against the Hammers. Both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are likely to start after brief cameos off the bench in the first leg against the Blaugrana in midweek.
Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic remain out of action with injury and illness respectively, but Solskjaer may not risk Scott McTominay and Fred – two fringe players who have become integral pieces of the puzzle in recent weeks, most notably in Europe.
McTominay’s athleticism makes him a certain starter at Camp Nou next week. He was man of the match at Old Trafford and his bustling, all-action style will be needed once more in order to grind the home side down to as much of a standstill as the men in red can muster.
Fred has endured a difficult debut season in England but has also stepped up in recent weeks, a testing period during which he has seemingly found his land legs after regularly looking all at sea in his formative months.
It’s just as likely, however, that both start, with their industry and energy vital to getting United on the front foot at home quickly against the inconsistent Hammers.
Paul Pogba might also be wrapped in cotton wool for Tuesday but, at the same time, probably needs minutes to find his form, so could well feature.
Luke Shaw is definitely out as he serves a domestic suspension, which could pave the way for a first start for Marcos Rojo in the league this season, with perhaps Matteo Darmian also featuring as Ashley Young is banned.
Whatever he does for the visit of Manuel Pellegrini’s side, Solskjaer will be focused on the big picture. As much as fans will have their sights set on Tuesday and another improbable, magical night in Europe, West Ham is a bigger game than Barca.
United need to arrest the slump of four defeats in their last five games. That starts with a strong performance at home on Saturday.
TIME FOR HAMMERS TO NAIL SOME CONSISTENCY
Things are still not exactly quite right at West Ham. Pellegrini possesses an undoubtedly talented set of players, a squad that has a legitimate case for potentially being the strongest outside the top six.
Yet, the Hammers are arguably the most erratic side in the Premier League.
Their form chart (which in football is traditionally colour-coded green/red/amber for win/lose/draw) resembles a Fruit Pastel lollipop – LLWLWLWDDL is how their last 10 games read.
Hammers fans are clueless as to what to expect when they turn up to watch their side home or away, from week to week.
From drawing 1-1 with Liverpool at London Stadium at the start of February and then earning a point on the road at Crystal Palace, they then only succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Etihad Stadium against champions Manchester City.
A 2-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Cardiff followed before they found themselves 3-1 down at home to doomed Huddersfield in mid-March. A crazy fightback saw them score three goals in 15 minutes – including Javier Hernandez’s 91st minute winner – to triumph 4-3.
The mood at London Stadium is far more serene than last season when pitch invasions and protests at the board were commonplace – but anger has morphed into ambiguity. Pellegrini’s squad contains stardust in Marko Arnautovic, Felipe Anderson and Manuel Lanzini, while academy graduate Declan Rice is being given space to flourish.
After the preceding lows – they survived the drop in 2017/18 thanks to David Moyes leading a late surge – perhaps supporters must simply settle for at least an improvement, for now.
They are two places better off and have the same amount of points now as they finished with last term, with five games to go.
The Hammers also have a decent record against United – who they nailed 3-1 at home last August – having only lost two of the past eight league meetings.
UNITED MUST REDISCOVER ATTACKING INSTINCTS
One standout feature of Solskjaer’s early months at United was a return to club traditions – free-flowing football, rapier attacks and a need, a desire, to entertain the fans.
Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Pogba all initially benefitted from working under a manager who not only knew and was willing to break the defensive shackles the club had been placed in by Jose Mourinho, but as a former striker himself, could offer unique advice to the team’s prime goalscorers.
But in recent weeks, all of them have seemingly regressed. Since posting three-straight games in which he scored a brace, Lukaku is now scoreless in four.
During Solskjaer’s first 11 games in interim charge, Pogba rocketed in nine goals. It’s now none in eight.
Rashford has netted three in his last five, but has played a lot of games and is lacking sharpness in front of goal. Meanwhile, Martial, continues to feel like a luxury player United can’t afford to carry through this testing spell.
His only goal in his last six games was down to a lot of fortune in the unconvincing 2-1 win over Watford in the last home league game.
In the league defeats to Arsenal and Wolves there was plenty of positives to pick out from defeat. At the Emirates, United had 14 shots, four on target; and at Molineux rained in 18 shots, with five on target.
Had it not been for Rui Patricio in the 2-1 defeat in the Midlands or the woodwork and bad luck against the Gunners, the results could have read very differently.
But at home against Watford, United fashioned only eight shots, were shut down against Wolves in the FA Cup and registered no shots on goal on Wednesday against Barcelona – the first time the Red Devils failed to register a single shot on target in a Champions League game since 2005, when they lost by the same scoreline to AC Milan.
The honeymoon period for Solskjaer is well and truly over and now his true coaching prowess will come to the fore. But before all that, he needs his biggest talents to come back to life.
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