The champions are back. No more preseason friendlies in the United States. No more glorified friendlies at Wembley in the form of the FA Community Shield. Premier League action is finally here and Manchester United kick off their title-defending campaign on Sunday when they take a trip to the Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion. Last season, United only dropped two points all season at Old Trafford - in a 2-2 draw last October with the Midlands side. The Reds earned retribution on New Year's day with a 1-2 victory over the Baggies in the return fixture. With upcoming fixtures versus Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal FC, and Chelsea FC on the horizon, United will be targeting all three points come Sunday.
United come into the season as favorites to lift the Premier League trophy again at season's end, something that they achieved for a record 19th time during the last campaign. They have lost Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes to retirement, but the club spent in the region of £50 million over the summer to acquire the services of David de Gea, Ashley Young, and Phil Jones. After a smooth preseason - one in which injuries were minimal, newcomers were well integrated, and all six matches were won - United appear eager and prepared for their title defense.
For Sunday's match, Antonio Valencia and Darren Fletcher have each been ruled as they recover from injury and illness, respectively. However, both will participate for the Reserves side on Monday as each seeks a return to fitness and form. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is still unavailable after suffering from a concussion while in New Jersey for the U.S. preseason tour. Patrice Evra's availability is also in doubt after he picked up a knock on his knee during Sunday's Community Shield match.
West Bromwich Albion
The Baggies finished last season 11th in the Premier League table. After a promising start to the season, one in which they spent a good portion of it in the top half of the table, the Midlands side experienced a drastic slide - the result being the sacking of manager Roberto Di Matteo. On came Roy Hodgson, who steadied the club and created positive momentum to end the season. 'Woy and his side also traveled to the United States for their preseason preparation. The two biggest summer signings for West Brom were striker Shane Long from Reading and midfielder Zoltan Gera from Fulham while goalkeeper Ben Foster has been brought in on loan from Birmingham City.
There are a few injury concerns for West Brom, most notably Peter Odemwingie who is questionable due to an ankle knock. Youssuf Mulumbu may be unavailable as well due to an abdominal strain.
(United 4-4-2) Despite having a few shaky moments during the preseason, the £18.9 million de Gea will likely be between the posts on Sunday. Captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the first-choice center-back tandem. If Evra is unable to play, expect to see Fabio as his able deputy. At right-back, either da Silva twin is a strong candidate to start as is Chris Smalling. In the central midfield, there are a number of possibilities: Michael Carrick was ruled out for the England v Holland friendly, prior it's cancellation, due to an Achilles injury that was believed to have gotten worse in Sunday's Community Shield - his participation is uncertain. Ryan Giggs and Anderson would be obvious candidates to play in the center of the park as well, but Tom Cleverley's recent form gives Fergie a difficult decision on who to start. Out wide, Nani has already been labeled the starter on the right and opposite of him, the newly acquired Young is probable to start - although Park Ji-sung is a possibility as well. Up front, Wayne Rooney will start and his partner is likely to be either Dimitar Berbatov or Danny Welbeck.
(West Brom 4-2-3-1/4-3-3) Foster, a former deputy to van der Sar at Old Trafford, will be in goal. In front of him, Jonas Olsson and Pablo Ibanez are the anticipated paring at center-back while Nicky Shorey can be expected at left-back. Steven Reid has a bit of calf strain but he is still expected to start at right-back. If Mulumbu is able to play, expect him and Paul Scharner to shield the defense. If Mulumbu is unable to go, expect Somen Tchoyi to deputise. Chris Brunt is likely to be deployed as the wide right player while Jerome Thomas will likely be on the opposite flank. If Hodgson elects to use three central midfielders, anticipate seeing James Morrison as the most advanced behind Odemwingie. If two strikers are used, Odemwingie could partner the newly acquired Long up front.
Here is a projected lineup:
* Evra or Fabio vs Brunt: Whoever the United left-back will on Sunday, they will need to be wary of the threat of Brunt - a winger who provided 11 assists last season for West Brom. In the past few seasons, United's wide left players tend to play narrow. Thus, space is often there for Evra to get forward and join the attack with overlapping runs. Either him or Fabio will need to carefully choose their marauding runs forward because Brunt is more than capable in getting behind them and providing service for the dangerous Odemwingie.
* Odemwingie's (and/or Long's) movement: During last season's campaign, Odemwingie had a fantastic debut in the Premier League by providing 15 goals and 7 assists. The movement and clinical finishing of both the Baggies' talisman and Long, the latter who bagged 23 goals in the Championship last season, will need to be sorted out by the United defense and deepest-lying central midfielder. It was just last Sunday versus Manchester City where Edin Dzeko's deep movement allowed him to go free prior to firing a cracker from 30 yards out. With the doubt over Carrick's health, it will be important that somebody occupies the space between the lines when United are out of possession.
* Need to clinical near goal: Last season, West Brom conceded 71 goals which was 2nd most to Blackpool. While much of that was due to Di Matteo's ambitious attacking tactics prior to be being sacked, it does hint at weakness in defense. Foster is an able and agile goalkeeper, but United supporters are well aware that he is capable of the occasional howler. It is likely that Rooney and Nani will continually create goal scoring chances at the Hawthorns - the United attackers will need to be clinical to avoid any sort of shock result.
Odds: West Brom 6/1, Draw 16/5, Manchester United 4/9
Prediction: West Brom 0-2 Manchester United