It’s another week, another game against Hull City. Three meetings in 23 days with Marco Silva’s side generates a Groundhog Day feeling, but despite the repetition this fixture is no less important for José Mourinho and his men. United’s momentum was significantly slowed by disappointing draws against Liverpool and Stoke City in the team’s last two league outings, but the arrival of Hull represents the ideal opportunity to refocus.
Over two EFL Cup semi-final legs, the Tigers were unable to outlast United, who secured relatively safe passage into the competition’s final. The manner of United’s performance in last Thursday’s tie at the KCOM Stadium, however, will have undoubtedly alarmed Mourinho. United turned in a bizarrely complacent display after winning the first leg comfortably, and Mourinho’s team was almost made to rue a lack of urgency as Hull edged a 2-1 victory.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It’s another week, another game against Hull City. Three meetings in 23 days with Marco Silva’s side generates a Groundhog Day feeling, but despite the repetition this fixture is no less important for José Mourinho and his men. [/blockquote]
Defeat, although not acknowledged by Mourinho, ended United’s unbeaten run at 17 games and, although it was not harmful to the Reds’ passage, it rounded off a trio of lacklustre performances. The Reds’ lossless streak had to end at some stage though and perhaps such an inconsequential defeat was the ideal time for it go. There will have been little loss of morale following the game, but it should remind the players that higher standards are expected.
Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup was routine in the end, but in the first half there were signs that the lethargy displayed at Hull had not been shaken off. Mourinho made several changes to his regular starting line-up, and some individuals’ lack of match fitness may account for the sub-par opening half. In the second period, United found another gear and added three goals in addition to Marouane Fellaini’s headed opener. There were some promising exchanges during the half, amply demonstrating the greater depth of quality that United now possess.
Bastian Schweinsteiger made his first start since victory over Sheffield United in the third round of last year’s FA Cup, and the veteran German took the opportunity to show that he can still contribute in what could be a packed conclusion to the season. Mourinho’s team is still competing on four fronts, and Schweinsteiger’s man of the match display suggests that his new career as a social media personality may be cut short by a return to football. The former Bayern Munich captain will not feature every week, yet his experience should not be underestimated.
League action will likely bring a reversion to a more recognised line-up, as the Reds can ill afford to drop further points after two frustrating draws. Mourinho’s side is still swaying precariously between the top four and the depths of another season without top table European football. Successive stumbles against Liverpool and Stoke meant that United squandered the opportunity to leapfrog the Scousers.
The Reds have enjoyed a favourable record against Hull for several years, in fact, the Tigers have not won at Old Trafford since 1952. Those kinds of record, ones that would see opposition teams arriving in Manchester with the weight of history against them, were shifted onto United’s shoulders under David Moyes. Mourinho, however, has restored some semblance of the old order. His team is the firm favourite to take all three points.
While United failed to turn up for last week’s semi-final, Hull gains credit for an effective performance. The Tigers were aggressive in midfield and Oumar Niasse was a tireless presence in attack. Tom Huddlestone showed experience in the centre of the park, and Jarron Bowen was tidy, if unspectacular. Niasse and Bowen have not been regular fixtures in Silva’s side, often missing out to Abel Hernandez and Evandro Goebel. Whether any of these players return to the side in light of their impressive display remains to be seen, but Hull’s weekend display shows that United should be looking for goals.
An ignominious FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship side Fulham may have dented any confidence Silva’s side had built in beating United. Hull shipped four goals and Hernandez missed two penalties in two minutes, rubbing salt deep into the wound. Huddlestone was forced to play at centre-back and the scoreline suggests that he did not have the most memorable afternoon. Silva has moved to combat his side’s defensive crisis by bringing in Inter Milan’s Andrea Ranocchia on loan, and he could be thrown straight into the fray against United.
Elsewhere, the Portuguese coach has also added Liverpool’s Lazar Markovic as a source of creativity, but it is finishing chances that is Hull’s real problem. Top scorer Robert Snodgrass has been sold, and Hernandez’ double penalty miss points to a chronic lack of confidence. United will hope for a relatively untroubled evening at the back.
Mourinho has confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Valencia, and Paul Pogba will return to the starting team, after all three sat out Sunday’s game. The trio have been almost ever-present this season, and their reinstatement is no surprise. Eric Bailly has also been passed fit after picking up a knock while playing for the under-23 squad this week in an attempt to ease him back into first team action. This means that Mourinho has a full squad to call upon, but his starting side will likely have a familiar composition.
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Bailly, Fosu-Mensah, Smalling, Fellaini, Rooney, Lingard, Mata, Rashford
Hull subs from: Marshal, Ellabdellaoui, Bowen, Tymon, Meyler, Maloney, Markovic, Diomande.
In defence, Chris Smalling turned in an unconvincing performance in defeat at the KCOM Stadium. The 27-year-old has yet to recapture the form which made him one of Louis van Gaal’s most important players. With both Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo available, Smalling may drop out of the side. Luke Shaw made a return to action on Sunday, but may have to settle for a place on the bench this time around. The England international looked short of confidence on occasion against Wigan, and his re-introduction will likely be gradual.
Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick should return in midfield, and Mourinho will be hoping that they rediscover their rhythm alongside Paul Pogba. It is in attack, however, that United still remains unsettled. Various combinations have been deployed either side of Ibrahimovic, but none has offered the kind of balance that can be achieved with both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial in the side.
Martial was unconvincing in a striker’s role for 45 minutes, but provided two assists in the second half against the Latics. It wasn’t a vintage performance from the Frenchman, but there was consensus after the game that he had passed Mourinho’s “audition.” Mkhitaryan, on the other hand, was United’s classiest attacker, coming alive to finish a sweeping counter attack as United marched into the last 16 of the FA Cup.
Last week’s miserable showing against now very familiar opponents was hopefully nothing more than a blip in what has otherwise been a very promising period for United.
Mikes Jones (Referee)
A Garratt, M Wilkes (Assistants)
S Atwell (Fourth Official)
United 3-0 Hull City