As fresh problems presented themselves, a familiar result was the almost inevitable outcome. With little more than a handful of choices available, José Mourinho lined up his few available players against West Bromwich Albion and was rewarded with yet another home draw. Although Manchester United is in the midst of an unbeaten league run that stretches almost six months, Mourinho’s side remains fifth, seemingly as far away from the Champions League as ever. The past 20 league games without loss have included nine ending in a tie.
Saturday’s occasion had all the hallmarks of déjà vu; a performance and result to which the Old Trafford faithful have become accustomed. Once again, Mourinho’s side enjoyed the majority of possession, yet created very little of note. Such was the manager’s frustration at his inability to break a familiar pattern that he made a point of criticising his players’ inability to take the few chances they made. “We missed easy chances and we had a couple of players who when you look up you don’t see them for 10 minutes,” the manager noted immediately following the game. “You always see the same guys in front of the train, holding the train up.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]There was nobody wise enough to steer the chance home. For long periods of the game, United toiled as West Brom stacked 10 players in defence. The Reds had no answer, and no alternatives. [/blockquote]
It was a harsh, if perfectly valid point. Opportunities flashed across Ben Foster’s goalmouth more than once on Saturday, yet there was nobody wise enough to steer the chance home. For long periods of the game United toiled as West Brom stacked 10 players in defence. Yet, the Reds had no answer, and no alternatives. By the final whistle the team had resorted to launching long balls at Marouane Fellaini. Always the sign of desperation.
Tony Pullis’ team isn’t the first to employ defensive tactics at Old Trafford of course. In ties against Burnley, West Ham United, Stoke City and Bournemouth, United faced an opponent that was happy to sit back and soak up what little pressure United could muster. Mourinho is yet to find an answer. It is all the more frustrating for the opportunity missed – United might be chasing down Chelsea had the team converted many of these home draws into wins. As it stands Champions League qualification looks a stretch.
Indeed, it is difficult to look at the league table with much optimism, not least because of Liverpool’s victory at the weekend. The Reds hold a game in hand over Manchester City and two over Liverpool, but sit five points behind the Blues, and six behind the Merseysiders. Mourinho’s men now have a mere 10 games to bridge the gap to the top four. To make matters more difficult, three of those games will be against opposition residing in the Champions League places.
It’s now or never for Mourinho’s side. On Tuesday United must defeat an Everton side suffering the fallout of an emotional Merseyside derby. It will be no easy task, with Everton in seventh place, and the visitors holding the opportunity to overtake United should the Blues find a way to victory at Old Trafford.
Under Ronald Koeman’s stewardship Everton has become a more consistent side than last season. The Dutchman has overseen a number of impressive victories in recent months, including a 4-0 win over City in January and victory over Arsenal before the international break. The Toffees are now in the unlikely position of challenging for a European berth. However, the visitors arrive in Manchester on the back of that Liverpool defeat, and Koeman’s side has been on the wrong end of widespread criticism for the nature of some of the tackling in the Merseyside derby, not least the roughhouse treatment of Emre Can.
Yet, there is more to this Everton side. Spearheading the visitors’ attack is a man with whom Mourinho should be familiar – or unfamiliar, depending on which way you look at it. Romeu Lukaku was shipped out to Everton in a £28 million deal only weeks into Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea, and has successful built a reputation as one of the Premier League’s finest strikers. Lukaku is top of the league’s goalscoring charts this season, having been in outstanding form for his club, netting 21 times in the campaign. United’s patchwork defensive line will certainly be tested, while home supporters will look on with some envy.
Where Everton has been too often undone this season is in the goalkeeping department, with Maarten Stekelenburg brought in to put an end to Joel Robles’ less-than-confident displays. It was a short-lived move and Robles will appear in the away goal on Tuesday night. In an attempt to mask his ‘keeper’s shortcomings, Koeman opted for the increasingly popular back five at the weekend, with dreadful results. The Dutchman must hope that United’s inability to find the net will come to his rescue at Old Trafford.
Mourinho’s injury list is as lengthy as ever, although suspensions to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera are finally up. Both are available not a moment too soon; Herrera’s return will add some much-needed depth to United’s flagging midfield, while the Reds’ top goalscorer will walk back into the team, with his colleagues underlining the Swede’s importance during his absence.
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Young, Darmian, Rashford, Martial
Everton subs from: Stekelenburg, Valencia, Pennington, McCarthy, Lookman, Lennon, Kone
No such fortune can be found in the defensive ranks, with Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo representing United’s only natural centre back pairing. The only real question in defence is at left-back. Not for the first time this season, Mourinho opted to publicly criticise Luke Shaw. Despite the full back’s undeniable talent, Mourinho has taken umbrage at the Englishman’s attitude and application. It is surely the player’s last-chance at Old Trafford, and reports this week suggest that Shaw will be included in the matchday squad following a private meeting with his manager. It is unlikely that he will add to his run of two appearances in four months. Koeman’s side arrives at Old Trafford without former Red Morgan Schneiderlin, who is injured – as are Yannick Bolas, Seamus Coleman, and Ramiro Funes.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Assistants: C Hatzidakis, S Ledger
Fourth official: B Madley
United 2 – 1 Everton