There is something odd going on at Manchester United. Not the renewed sense of confidence following victory over Arsenal last week. Nor even United’s position in the Premier League’s top four. The most curious narrative this weekend is, surely, United’s improved injury situation. After months with little to offer aside from bad news, manager Louis van Gaal is close to enjoying a fully fit squad.
The Dutchman is unlikely to welcome back all of his absentee players this weekend, but it is now just a matter of days before Johnny Evans and Radamel Falcao return to United’s first choice side. Meanwhile, Ander Herrera – out of the side in recent weeks following a rib injury – played for an hour as United’s reserves thrashed Blackburn Rovers 5-0 this week.
It adds up to a positive story for Van Gaal; quite possibly the first time this season that the Dutchman has so little cause to complain about injuries.
Meanwhile, having snatched an unlikely victory at the Emirates, United now enjoys two home fixtures against Hull and Stoke City this week that should serve to solidify the Reds’ place in the Champions League qualification places. Little wonder Van Gaal appeared upbeat during his weekly press conference at Carrington on Friday.
“Evans has to develop match rhythm and that’s why he had to play in the second team,” said the Dutchman.
“He played 60 minutes but then you don’t already have the match rhythm of the Premier League. He is fit to play but not for the Premier League.
“Falcao is not ready. It is the same thing with Evans. When you are out of the running for so long and not training with your fellow players and only running because of the injury, one week of training sessions is not sufficient to develop match rhythm. I need strikers now, so maybe he is in the 18.”
Indeed, United’s 62-year-old manager has a major to decision to take on countryman Robin van Persie’s role in the side, even in Falcao if not quite ready to return to the United starting line-up. The former Arsenal forward touched the ball just 13 times against the north Londoners last Saturday before being substituted in the 75th minute.
The 31-year-old’s performances have stimulated significant debate, with youngster James Wilson seemingly close to usurping his more illustrious team-mate. With Van Persie’s performance against Arsenal symptomatic of so many lacklustre displays over the past 18 months few supporters will be surprised if the Dutchman finds himself on the bench this weekend. His performances deserve little else.
“I had a striker, an international striker, Mario Gomez, who touched the ball nine times in matches at Bayern Munich in my time,” said Van Gaal, who offered little comfort to his countryman.
“I do think 13 is few for a striker. You can count his touches of the ball. The more important thing is how he is playing. It was a very bad game from him and that is why I changed him. When I change a player it is not because he is the best player on the pitch, or then I would be doing something wrong. When I change players it is normally because they are doing something not good in their performance.”
The Dutchman has scored just three times for United this season after spending much of the previous campaign under David Moyes seemingly sulking about Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Elsewhere Marcos Rojo is available after recovering from a dislocated shoulder, although left-back Luke Shaw is out until the new year with an ankle injury. Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva and Daley Blind remain on the sidelines with injury.
Meanwhile, Steve Bruce’s Hull side arrives in Manchester in the middle of a slump that threatens to drag the Tigers into a relegation battle. Bruce’s side has suffered three straight defeats in the Premier League and enjoyed only one win in the past 10 league games.
Nor have the visitors enjoyed any victory over United in recent times – the last win coming some 40 years ago when the clubs met in the old Second Division.
On the pitch Bruce is without forward Abel Hernandez, who will be at the birth of his child in Uruguay, while Gaston Ramirez is suspended. Aside from the South American duo the visitors enjoy a fully fit squad.
The challenge for United is to translate returning stars, together with victory over Arsenal last weekend, into genuine momentum. Victory over Hull will be United’s third on the spin, with Stoke visiting Old Trafford on Tuesday. It is an opportunity that Van Gaal’s side simply must grasp.
“We have to maintain the spirit,” admitted Van Gaal. “That’s the most important thing because I think the fans of Manchester United like the working spirit of this team. They fight always until the end and that’s also what we have to show. We have to work hard to come back to being in the first four.”
United supporters demand little else of course. Still, there will be just a touch of bittersweet irony if United’s renewed confidence comes alongside Van Persie’s defenstration. Just a touch over 18 months since Van Persie led United to a 20th league title, the Dutchman appears toothless. United can ill afford something similar against this weekend’s opponents.
United (4-1-4-1): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Rojo, Blackett; Carrick; Herrera, Fellaini, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Hull (3-5-2): McGregor; Chester, Dawson, Davies; Elmohamedy, Huddlestone, Livermore, Diame, Robertson; Ben Arfa, Jelavic
United: Lindegaard, Vermijl, Evans, Rothwell, Mata, Anderson, Young, Pereira, Fletcher, Januzaj, Falcao, Wilson
Hull: Harper, Jakupovic, Maguire, Rosenior, Bruce, Meyler, Brady, Quinn, Sagbo, Aluko, Ince, McShane
United 26 – Draw 18 – Hull 3
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: D Cann, S Bennett
Fourth Official: S Attwell
United 3-1 Hull City
£1 bet club
James Wilson to score @ 11/8
Running total: £(-)12