[dropcap]J[/dropcap]osé Mourinho is focused first on winning – taking back whatever momentum was lost during Manchester United’s frustration draw at Stoke City last week. The rest of Sunday’s narrative will centre on Wayne Rooney, the erstwhile Red and club record goalscorer, who returns to Old Trafford for the first time as an Everton player. The 31-year-old will enjoy a fine Manchester reception, whatever caveats remain about the player’s history at the club.
After all, Rooney’s record at United is beyond reproach whatever the early deterioration in the player’s performances. Rooney remained at United three seasons too many, striker and club trapped by David Moyes’ insecurities and that five-year contract.
The pointed decline shapes how many will remember the player, yet, his dalliances with both Manchester City and Chelsea touch on supporters’ emotions more strongly. It is why, despite his record, Rooney will not draw warmth from all on Sunday.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=”José Mourinho”]Sometimes the word ‘legend’ is used too easily but that’s not this case. He’s a real legend in the club. The numbers, they speak by themselves.[/blockquote]
All of that is in the past, of course. This weekend, Old Trafford will surely remember more of the good than the bad of the player’s 13 seasons at United. The striker scored 253 goals in 577 appearances for the club, and Mourinho is in no doubt about the reception the player will receive despite the manager swiftly bringing an end to Rooney’s time at United.
“The stadium will show him the respect that he deserves, I hope, before the match and after the match,” Mourinho told MUTV. “Sometimes the word ‘legend’ is used too easily but that’s not this case. He’s a real legend in the club. The numbers, they speak by themselves. For sure he’s going to get the welcome that he deserves.”
After all, Old Trafford has a strong record in welcoming back former players, notably lauding Cristiano Ronaldo’s return with Real Madrid. Rooney enjoys both a superior record at United to the Portuguese and, arguably, committed fewer affronts to the collective memory.
On the pitch, Mourinho’s side seeks the victory that could return the Reds to the top of the Premier League table. Points dropped at Stoke, together with Manchester City’s outstanding form, leaves United three points behind Pep Guardiola’s team albeit at this early stage of the campaign.
United’s victory in the Champions League over Basel means that Mourinho’s team has won four from six competitive games this season. Mourinho’s side brushed aside the Swiss team on Tuesday night, with Romelu Lukaku scoring his fifth club goal of an increasingly productive season. It was the kind of European fixture in which United has too often failed over the past four seasons. No more, and Mourinho’s team will expect to qualify from the group with some comfort.
Yet, the draw at Stoke was also the kind of fixture in which this team has dropped points over the past three seasons, with the Reds’ defence looking far from secure against Mark Hughes’ mid-table outfit. It is a failing that Mourinho will doubt note.
More seriously is the injury to Paul Pogba in midweek that leaves Mourinho with a significant hole in midfield for the next month – one that cannot be adequately filled by alternatives.
Ronaldo Koeman is under pressure, a situation exacerbated both by Everton’s poor start to the season and the club’s heavy summer spending. Lukaku’s £75 million move to Old Trafford left Everton with a healthy summer budget, but the club’s resources were also stretched by a spree that topped £140 million.
The summer brought a clutch of new players to club, including former Red Michael Keane, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, striker Sandro Ramirez, and Ajax midfielder Davvy Klaassen.
It is a team that is yet to gel, despite the youthful promised offered the new acquisitions. The team lost heavily to Italian side Atalanta in the Europa League on Thursday and was comfortably beaten by Tottenham Hotspur last weekend. Indeed, Koeman’s side has won just once in the league this season, although the Dutchman is not yet ready to panic. Whether that is true of his club’s Board is another question.
“I have the experience. I had a bad run while I was at Southampton and we had a bad run here last season but we came out of that,” said Koeman this week. “I have the belief, I have the confidence that we can come out of this. Yesterday against Atalanta really was a wake-up call. I saw the team with a lot of doubts on Thursday. One of our strengths last season was that we had a good defensive organisation but we’ve lost our strengths at the moment. It’s time for the experienced players to stand up.”
One of those being Rooney, of course.
Pogba will miss Sunday’s Premier League game with a hamstring injury he sustained in midweek. The Frenchman is unlikely to play again before mid-October in a significant blow to United’s hopes of retaining early season momentum.
Pogba was replaced by Marouane Fellaini against Basel, with the Belgian scoring United’s opening goal and creating another for Marcus Rashford. Fellaini is likely to start against Everton, although the Belgian’s range and speed of passing often has a negative impact on United’s midfield fluency. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata are also in contention to play in the Frenchman’s absence.
“He is injured and he cannot play on Sunday,” said the manager of Pogba, his midweek captain. “We know that, for a few matches, I don’t know how many, but I expect we are to play without Pogba for a few matches.”
“That is an opportunity for others and the others are ready to get that opportunity, and to perform. Of course we feel sorry that we lose a player but we are calm and confident, because it is an opportunity for people who are ready to take it.”
Elsewhere, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo remain on the road to recovery from long-term injury. Shaw has featured in three under-23 matches this season and could play again for the reserve side on Monday night.
“He is not injured anymore so it is a question of form and it is a question of options, but he is not injured, he is recovered,” noted the manager. Rojo, meanwhile, has begun to step up his training regime, with a return “probably a couple of months” away.
Elsewhere, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly are likely to return after completing midfield European suspensions, with Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian both options at left-back. In attack Lukaku and Rashford may be complemented by Antony Martial, a player who has shown glimpses of a return to the kind of form that prompted United to pay more than £30 million for the Frenchman.
Koeman has no new injury concerns but the Dutchman may make changes following consecutive heavy defeats. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman are in contention to partner the returning Rooney in attack.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: Simon Beck, Andy Halliday
Fourth Official: Jonathan Moss
United 2 – 0 Everton