[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was only Burton. It was only Burton. It was only Burton. Repeat the mantra. In fact, given Nigel Clough’s decision to rest a number of his first choice players on Wednesday, any judgment about Manchester United’s victory over Burton Albion reserves must be taken with some caution. Still, excitement there was, especially with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard all outstanding on the night. The Reds are back! Right?
Yet, United’s positive start to the new season faces a real test over the next four weeks. José Mourinho’s outfit faces six games on the road – and one at home – in a busy month of fixtures and travel. The Portuguese’s side faces Southampton at St Mary’s this weekend, before the long-haul to Moscow to meet with CSKA on Wednesday in the Champions League. The seven-match sequence concludes with United’s League Cup trip to Swansea City in late October.
“It is difficult, but it means it’s going to be easier later,” said Mourinho on Friday. “If we play now, CSKA in Moscow and Benfica in Lisbon, it means, later, we are going to play them at Old Trafford. If we have consecutive matches away at Liverpool and Huddersfield it means later we will play them at Old Trafford, so I’m never too worried about matches home and away because the number of matches is going to be the same.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United’s positive start to the new season faces a real test over the next four weeks. Mourinho’s outfit faces six games on the road in a busy month of fixtures and travel.[/blockquote]
“I know it’s difficult to play at home, but it’s difficult to play away – probably a bit more difficult to play away but, if we cannot win, we try to get a point. We go to win every match but, if it’s not possible to win all the time, we get points, and then try to compensate with good form at home.”
Mourinho’s team will be without talisman Paul Pogba throughout that time, and while the Frenchman’s absence will surely be felt over the next few weeks, Mourinho can bask in the glow of a vibrant forward line. For much of last season United struggled to score goals, even if the chance-creation data pointed to a profligate side, rather than one lacking in creativity. That is no longer so; Mourinho’s team is both creating and taking plenty of chances. It is why some bookmakers now make the Reds favourites to win this season’s Premier League.
Indeed, while United beat Championship strugglers Burton during Wednesday’s 4-1 League Cup win, it was still a night of electric attacking play that has rarely been seen at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Rashford, Martial and Lingard, in particular, connected repeatedly, providing the kind of slick attacking play absence for much of last season.
The Frenchman’s performance and goal may have been the most satisfying though. The former Monaco forward has started just twice so far this season, but his fourth goal of the campaign is evidence enough of rapidly improving form.
Rashford’s double means that it will be hard for Mourinho to continue the job-share arrangement he has set up between the two youngsters this season. It would be unfair on Juan Mata, who was excellent in United’s victory over Everton last weekend, but just how long can Mourinho hold back two immensely talented attacking players?
Martial’s improvement in down to confidence and happiness, says his manager.
“I see a great improvement in the person,” added Mourinho. “In his mood, in his face, in his body language. If you want one word: happiness. I am very pleased with his attitude overall, which means it’s easier for him to play well.
“He’s a happy guy, he’s working extremely well. If he starts matches, he tries to do well and if he goes on from the bench, even if it is for just 10 minutes, he tries to enjoy it and to give something extra in his time on the pitch.”
With Pogba’s leadership and drive missing during the coming difficult run it might just be United’s in-form forwards that carry the load.
New Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino has presided over a mixed start to the new campaign. Although the Saints have lost just once in the Premier League, defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup and a difficult pre-season, has meant a challenging start to life in England for Argentinian Pellegrino.
The start to the campaign was dominated by talk of Virgil van Dijk’s future at the club. The defender was the subject of protracted – and illegal – interest from Liverpool over the summer. With the player’s focus elsewhere and a long-term injury hampering his fitness, van Dijk is yet to start a game this season, although the former Celtic player made the bench last weekend.
“Every single week Virgil is getting better,” Pellegrino said on Thursday. “After a long period of time without playing a game, now he is training well and that is good news for us because we need Virgil like every single player in our squad. Every single week he will improve, but at the same time he needs to train and to play.
“But the structure of the defence doesn’t change too much when you change one player. Our defensive level is not just about the back four or one centre-back. I believe in the collective, to be together when we attack and defend. We have to be 100 per cent focused against United.”
Former international Pellegrino once played for Liverpool, having featured 12 times for the club in the 2005 season. It is a fact that is unlikely to be lost on United’s legion of travelling supporters.
“This is part of my history as a player and as a first coach with Rafa Benitez in Liverpool,” said Pellegrino. “But for me my challenge is to try to prepare my team as best as possible to try to win the game. I don’t have any relationship with Liverpool.”
Mourinho is unlikely to make many changes from the side that beat Everton last weekend. Phil Jones and Eric Bailly enjoyed a midweek rest and should return to the side, while Mourinho is likely to pick the more attack-minded Daley Blind at left-back ahead of Matteo Darmian or winger-turned-defender Ashley Young. Luke Shaw made his competitive return against Burton, but is unlikely to feature at the weekend as he builds up his fitness.
In midfield Marouane Fellaini’s improved form means that Ander Herrera will again start on the bench, with his fellow Spaniard Mata fighting against Martial and Rashford for one place in the team. Romelu Lukaku returns up front having enjoyed a midweek rest.
Pellegrino may welcome van Dijk back into the side for the first time since January, with the player having returned to competitive action as a substitute last weekend. The Dutchman played for Southampton’s under-23 side on Monday. Matt Targett has an ankle injury and misses out.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: Ian Hussin, Constantine Hatzidakis
Fourth official: Mike Jones
Southampton 1-2 United