Manchester United’s 10 days of tribulations is now underway, opening with a trickier-than-it-looked victory over AS Saint-Etienne in the Europa League. The Reds take a 3-0 lead into the second leg in France, which should provide ample cushion to rest some key names as the fixtures continue to pile up. José Mourinho was not altogether satisfied with United’s display against les Verts, but two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the closing stages – adding to his bizarre opener – means that the manager can look to Sunday’s FA Cup trip to Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers in isolation.
“The first half we played so bad,” was the Portuguese’ blunt assessment of his side’s display in the first 45 minutes against Saint-Etienne, and while United did pose a threat going forward, it is difficult to argue with Mourinho’s view of the team’s defensive performance. The fifth-placed French side has not set the goal-scoring heather alight this campaign, and it is clear why as they demonstrated some wasteful finishing of which United would have been proud.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Ibrahimovic’s hat-trick takes him to 23 goals He is not a normal footballer. The Swede’s general involvement in the game does not always catch the eye, but his goals have been the difference for United.[/blockquote]
The Reds improved in the second half to all but put the tie to bed, and despite his public protestations, Mourinho can take heart that his side showed it is capable of winning games without playing at its best. It was, after all, the type of game United would have found a way to draw earlier in the season. In this short, yet crucial period of the campaign, it is results, not performances that must be afforded greater importance.
The result on Thursday was sealed largely thanks to one man. Ibrahimovic’s hat-trick takes him to 23 goals in a season where the 35-year-old is showing little sign of slowing down. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Zlatan’s arrival questioned his suitability for its allegedly tougher standards, especially in what would normally be considered the twilight years of his career. But Ibrahimovic is not a normal footballer. The Swede’s general involvement in the game does not always catch the eye, in fact, he does go missing for spells, but his goals have been the difference for United on several occasions. The only surprise regarding his first treble in red is that it has taken him until the turn of the year to do it.
This weekend United travel to Ewood Park to face Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup. The Reds have not met the 1995 Premier League champions since a 2-0 victory in April 2012, and Rovers is a club that has played a role in several key moments of United’s recent history. Infamously, United lost the title to Blackburn on the final day of a wildly eventful 1994/95 season. It accelerated the induction of the Class of ’92 into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team, and there is little left to say about what happened next.
In 2011, however, United suffered what can now be looked upon as one of the most expensive defeats in its history. A squad decimated by injuries led Ferguson to field a team including Rafael da Silva in central midfield, and the Reds went down 3-2 to Steve Kean’s Blackburn, all as a young Paul Pogba watched forlornly from the bench. The impatient young Frenchman decided that he had waited too long for an opportunity to impress, and later admitted that it was on that day he decided that he wanted to leave Manchester. Whether Sir Alex was wrong to leave Pogba out that day is a separate debate, but it is indisputable that it would later cost the club £89 million.
Pogba may finally start a game against Blackburn on Sunday, if he escapes Mourinho’s rotation roulette.T he 23-year-old will be hoping it is a happier occasion this time.
These days, Blackburn finds itself meandering in the lower reaches of the Championship, second bottom and two points shy of safety. Years of managerial instability, and fan disdain towards owners Venky’s, has left the club light years away from a return to the Premier League, with an eighth-place finish in 2014 the best return since relegation from the top flight almost five years ago.
Owen Coyle has been in charge since the start of the new season, but has so far been unable to turn around the Lancashire club’s fortunes. In January, its owners appointed Paul Senior as Football Director in a bid to save the club from another relegation. Rovers welcomeUnited to Ewood Park under a cloud of uncertainty having won only seven of 31 league games.
Rovers’ league troubles means that there is very little expectation placed on Coyle’s side to get a result against in-form United. The Blackburn players have taken to the field under enormous pressure in recent weeks, yet against the visiting Reds that will be lifted. It is the main danger for Mourinho’s side. Blackburn’s woes mean Coyle’s side gets a free run at United, and the struggling players will hope to write themselves into history for the wrong reasons once again.
In the midst of a pivotal phase of the season, Mourinho is expected to make several changes for his side’s second game in four days. The Thursday-Sunday double-header has undone plenty of teams in the past, and the United manager must ensure his side does not fall foul of fatigue. However, the Portuguese coach has confirmed his intention to “go serious” with his team selection, and with a comfortable advantage over Saint-Etienne ahead of next week’s second leg, there is more scope for Mourinho to field a strong side.
Rovers subs from: Raya, Brown, Guthrie, Feeney, Tomlinson, Raya, Stokes<
United subs from: Romero, Valencia Blind, Darmian, Smalling, Jones, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Pogba, Rooney, Mkhitaryan, Ibrahimovic
Luke Shaw has been absent from recent squads, but deserves an opportunity to re-establish himself as speculation grows over his Old Trafford future. Daley Blind has looked shaky in recent weeks at left-back, and Matteo Darmian has done little to impress in the role. Sunday could be the ideal opportunity to integrate Shaw back into the fold, and the 21-year-old must hope g his manager agrees. On the opposite flank, Timothy Fosu-Mensah could be in line for another opportunity, after a solid display in the last round at home to Reading.
Marouane Fellaini started Thursday’s Europa League tie, only to be hauled off at half-time following a disjointed display. Using the Belgian as a rotational option has some merit, but there is an issue in that he does not fit with the style of play currently being implemented. Fellaini’s presence in United’s midfield during the week disrupted its flow, and it was little surprise to see the Belgian replaced by the more mobile Jesse Lingard.
Mourinho may once again wish to rotate his midfield, and may hope that Michael Carrick is fit enough for a return. The veteran midfielder has dropped out of the side in recent weeks, but his experience could prove vital as United look to negotiate a banana skin in Lancashire.
In attack, Anthony Martial once again impressed on the left wing against Saint-Etienne. The 21-year-old has responded well to Mourinho’s provocative style of man-management and has looked indispensable in his last few appearances. As the young Frenchman’s confidence comes sweeping back, Mourinho may permit him another start before a rest against Saint-Etienne on Wednesday. Up top, Marcus Rashford’s tireless endeavour was rewarded with two goals against the Royals in the last round, and his impressive cameo on Thursday may earn him another chance to lead the line on Sunday.
In between European ties and a looming EFL Cup Final, it would be easy for United to overlook this considerably less glamorous fixture. But as the side continue to compete on four fronts, the only team in the country still doing so, the primary caveat is that every game then becomes crucial. There can be no room for complacency against a struggling Blackburn side free of the shackles that have dogged them in league competition. Mourinho says he will no longer “throw away” FA Cup ties – United fans hope he is a man of his word.
Martin Atkinson (Referee)
Harry Lennard, Steve Child (Assistants)
Stephen Martin (Fourth official)
Blackburn 0-2 United