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.
Tottenham and England striker Harry Kane may have to consider surgery on his injured ankle, a leading surgeon has said.
Kane suffered a “significant lateral ligament” injury in his left ankle during Spurs’ 1-0 Champions League win over Manchester City and, although the club have yet to put a timescale on his return, he is unlikely to play again this season.
The Three Lions skipper is susceptible to ankle ligament damage as this is his fifth such injury since 2016 and the second to his left joint this year.
Surgeon Mark Davies, a leading specialist at the London Foot and Ankle Centre who has operated on Premier League footballers, says that going under the knife could help restore the strength of Kane’s ligament to what it was before his first injury.
“At some point I think they would think about doing something surgically to stabilise the ligament, which is quite feasible and should restore the problem happening in the long term,” Mr Davies told Press Association Sport.
“I would certainly talk to him about the what advantages of having surgery would have.
“If he wasn’t playing football and he wasn’t going over on it then I wouldn’t do anything about it but every time you turn your ankle you run the risk of lateral ligament damage in the ankle.
“He’s not that old, he could do with a stable ankle if he wants to carry on playing long term without it happening again.
“It is a routine operation because the ligament needs to be tightened up and that is fairly easy.
“If he were to have surgery, the surgeon would almost certainly use an internal brace, which is a device which you put over the ligament repair and it is incredibly strong.
“It means you are not just relying on scar tissue regaining strength so it would improve his chances of coming back.
“Nobody is immune to spraining an ankle, you can have the strongest ligament in the world and if you subject it to enough force it would sprain, but you should restore it to pre-injury levels of stability.”
The surgery would put Kane out of action for around three months, which may not be much longer than he could be expected to be out anyway.
The England striker does have impressive powers of recovery, though, as he returned to action two weeks quicker than expected earlier this year and is targeting a return to fitness for a possible Champions League final and UEFA Nations League semi-final in June.
Davies, who has operated on Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea players in the past, says Kane’s quick recovery rates have not made him more susceptible, neither has a full on schedule which has barely seen him get any rest over the past few summers.
“There is no merit in him having an extended rest, they are not sending him back too early, it’s just that he has got an unstable ankle,” Davies added.
“When you suffer that injury, the ligament doesn’t get as strong, so the slacker and slacker it is going to get, the more frequently it is going to happen.
“They do get him back very quickly, but they wouldn’t send him out if he wasn’t ready.”
The Blues’ 2-0 win at Anfield in April 2014 derailed Liverpool’s title tilt, paving the way for Manchester City to snatch the league crown.
Steven Gerrard’s slip gifted Demba Ba the first goal – Willian scored the decisive second – to end Liverpool’s 16-match unbeaten streak in a defeat that floored Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Liverpool are once more close to that elusive first title since 1990, but again City will push the Reds to the death – and Spain defender Azpilicueta believes the Blues can also dash Anfield hopes.
“It was a few years ago, but we went there and they had the party ready because they were smashing every team at Anfield,” said Azpilicueta.
“We arrived with a very clear idea, and we produced the game we had to at that moment to beat that team that was getting very good results.
“So to beat them 2-0 was very important, an important win for the club and the fans.
“We enjoyed that day and hopefully we can replicate it on Sunday. It’s not about frustrating Liverpool, it’s about playing our game.
“We know they are fighting for the title but for us every point is very important for the top four. It’s an important game.
“We know we’re going to play a very strong side, but first of all we need to keep the solidity that we’ve shown in the last games, and defend very well as a team because they are a big threat.
“And if we take our chances, I think we’ve proved ourselves already this season when we won (2-1) in the League Cup (in August). I think it’s a big game, and everyone’s looking forward to it.”
Chelsea scraped past Slavia Prague 1-0 in Thursday night’s Europa League quarter-final first leg at the Sinobo Stadium, with Marcos Alonso nodding home Willian’s cross in the closing stages.
Spain goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga pulled off a string of fine saves to deny the gutsy hosts, setting up Chelsea to complete the job at Stamford Bridge next week and reach the semi-finals.
Azpilicueta hailed Chelsea’s £71million record signing for quickly shaking off the League Cup final storm of refusing to be substituted.
Kepa defied manager Maurizio Sarri’s orders to stay on the field, only for Chelsea to lose the penalty shootout 4-3 to City.
The 24-year-old was eventually fined a week’s wages for that insubordination, raising fears for his Stamford Bridge future.
But after his commanding display in Prague, Azpilicueta believes Kepa has banished any lingering doubts about his Blues career.
Asked if Kepa’s showing on Thursday means all is forgiven, Azpilicueta said: “Yes, it’s really important for Kepa, it’s his first year in England, his first season here.
“Sometimes it has been frustrating for him because he couldn’t do anything to avoid a goal.
“He had one job to do and he did it very well.
“That’s three clean sheets in a row and it’s very important for us to be solid. We know that when we are in the Europa League quarter-finals every game is going to be difficult.”