Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last gasp winner at Crystal Palace was that it almost had that old air of inevitability about it. There was no cast-iron guarantee that the Reds would find a way past Palace’s enforced rear-guard, but it felt much more likely than the days of watching Louis Van Gaal’s United pacing around outside the door without so much as knocking it. Now, a tough test at West Bromwich Albion is the perfect opportunity to take another step in the right direction.
The nature of victory at Palace will provide a timely boost for José Mourinho’s men ahead of a trip to the Hawthorns. United is now unbeaten in six, but that record is still skewed by a series of frustrating draws that have permeated the past few months’ action. However, there is optimism that Mourinho’s side has moved up a level over the past three games. A hard fought victory against Zorya Luhansk has been built upon with wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Palace.
United held off a late surge against Spurs, and then responded to a major setback against the Eagles. The psychological impact of those two victories cannot be underestimated. United’s tendency to concede late goals and throw away advantages has been well-documented, and the context of the victory at Selhurt Park in particular did not appear to be lost on either Mourinho or his players.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]What we have to try to do in these three remaining matches [in December] is be in a position that gives us a chance in the second part of the season.[/blockquote]
Overcoming Tony Pulis’ in-form Baggies would be another step forward for United. This kind of fixture, away at a difficult ground in the middle of a busy run of fixtures, has too often been United’s undoing in recent seasons. If the talk of an assault on the top four is to continue simmering then dispatching West Brom is made all the more important by other fixtures on this week’s card. One or both of Manchester City and Arsenal will drop points on Sunday, before Liverpool travel across town to face rivals Everton.
This presents an opportunity for United to bridge the gap ahead of two hugely winnable home games against Sunderland and Middlesbrough. However, as the Christmas period approaches, it is clear that the trip to West Brom would likely present the biggest challenge of the season-shaping run of games. Tony Pulis’ side is vying to equal a club record four straight victories in the Premier League, and have lost only one of the last six.
The Hawthorns is also a ground at which the Reds have found it tough on recent visits; Sir Alex Ferguson signed off his illustrious managerial career with a famous 5-5 draw and Van Gaal could not find three points on either visit. For all his failings, David Moyes’ United recorded an impressive 3-0 win in 2014, delivering the type of performance that would be hugely welcome on Saturday evening.
As was the case at Selhurst Park, United will come up against familiar faces – this time in the form of Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans. The duo made a collective 354 appearances for the Reds before switching to the Hawthorns, and it is likely that at least one of them will make Tony Pulis’ starting XI. There is little than can be written about the inspirational Fletcher that United fans do not already know. Having witnessed his health struggles in his latter years at United, it is truly heart warming to see the Scot playing regular football again.
Salomon Rondon’s hat-trick of headers against Swansea City accounted for a chunk of the mid-week headlines, therefore United has little excuse not to be aware of the considerable threat presented by the Venezuelan – especially after his match-winner in the side’s previous meeting in March. The resurgent Marcos Rojo started at centre-back in that game, and will be looking to fare better against the imposing Rondon this time around.
Pulis’ managerial career has rarely attracted compliments regarding style of play, but this season his side have impressed in the final third, scoring a goal more than United in the league thus far. Despite conceding to a well-worked James McArthur goal on Wednesday, United contained Palace for long periods, and will have to find a similar solution to subdue the Baggies on Saturday.
[blockquote who=”Tony Pulis” cite=””]Manchester United are going to be a massive challenge for us. They’re on an unbeaten run and they deserve respect.[/blockquote]
The bad news for United fans is that Eric Bailly has joined fellow summer signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the treatment table. The Ivorian was a surprise inclusion on Wednesday, not for his form, but for the fact that Mourinho chose to deploy him at right-back. Bailly picked up a knee injury at Selhurst Park and will be unavailable for a game where his aggressiveness would be a major asset.
West From subs: Subs: Palmer, Olsson, Gardner, Chadli, Galloway, Robson-Kanu, McLean
United subs: Subs: Romero, Darmian, Young, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Rashford
Bailly’s unavailability means that Rojo and Phil Jones will continue to anchor the Reds’ defence. While Rojo has been rightly lauded for his markedly improved form, the Argentinian should have been sent off against both Everton and Crystal Palace. Rojo’s aggression on the field is a key facet of his game, but he surely will not survive another ill-judged lunge, should it happen again. If Mourinho did have a word with him post-Everton, then his sentiments will have been amplified ten-fold after Rojo’s attempted assault on ex-Red Wilfried Zaha. Rojo is playing very well, so it would be a great shame if he were to ruin his renaissance with another moment of madness.
United’s midfield has picked itself in recent weeks, but the question marks regarding Michael Carrick’s ability to play consecutive matches in a short space of time has persisted. With two home fixtures against opposition likely to retreat into their own half on the horizon, it may be worth persisting with Carrick at West Brom. Consecutive games at Old Trafford present an opportunity to rest the veteran midfielder, but he is just too valuable to drop out at the Hawthorns.
In attack, Anthony Martial should be fit and rested after missing Wednesday’s victory. The Frenchman’s form has fluctuated wildly this campaign after a stellar debut season. Mourinho has been visibly critical of the front-man on more than one occasion this season. United did not lack for creativity in the final third against Palace, but there was a lack of pace that could be solved by restoring Martial to the side.
Fans also hope that the understanding between Paul Pogba and Ibrahimovic continues to blossom. These are two big players with even bigger reputations; the type that has not always fitted in at Old Trafford. Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao were two notable failures, but United seem to have found the right marquee signings this time around. The duo combined for both United goals on Wednesday to inspire a result that will have been tough to swallow for numerous critics. Those dissenting voices will recede further if United makes it three wins from three at the Hawthorns.
Anthony Taylor (Referee)
S Child, I Hussin (Assistants)
P Tierney (4th official)
WBA 0-1 United