Manchester United return to action against Championship opponents Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday, with Louis van Gaal's side knowing a win will see them through into the quarterfinals. On paper it's a game that United ought to win, but this is really quite a nasty draw: as one of only three non-Premier League teams left in the tournament, Boro are going to be up for it. Aitor Karanka has turned the Teessiders into a tough team to beat, and they eliminated Manchester City from the FA Cup last season before going within a whisker of promotion.
It'll be the first time these sides have met since Boro were last relegated from the Premier League in 2009. On that occasion, United won 2-0 away at the Riverside. You have to go back almost exactly a decade for the last time Middlesbrough beat United, though it's a game still fresh in the memory of Teessiders: they ran out 4-1 winners at home to Sir Alex Ferguson's men, with only a last-gasp Cristiano Ronaldo goal offering any consolation. United went on to finish the season eight points adrift of champions Chelsea, Boro finished two points above Manchester City ... in 14th place.
United are still set to be without Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair, while Antonio Valencia's involvement is doubtful after he had to be substituted in the weekend's goalless derby. The good news is that the Stevenage Ronaldo Ashley Young could return to action, while James Wilson should also be involved after illness.
Middlesbrough will be without two of their most important attackers in striker Cristhian Stuani and winger Albert Adomah, while midfielder Adam Forshaw will also miss out. Home hero Stewart Downing could be involved, though he's doubtful.
Aitor Karanka cut his coaching teeth as assistant to José Mourinho at Real Madrid, so unsurprisingly the Basque tactician is fairly similar in his approach. Upon his arrival on Teesside, he set about reinforcing their defence, and did so by parking two midfield anchormen in front of the back four. Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton have been almost ever-present since, and they'll look to make it very difficult for United to pass straight through the middle.
However, there are question marks about their attacking play: often they resemble United with painfully slow passing and plenty of sterile possession. When things click, they're one of the most entertaining teams in the Championship; when they don't, they're pretty easy to defend against.
In order to nullify their attack, Morgan Schneiderlin (or whoever ends up as United's deepest midfielder) will have to pay close attention to former Italian international Diego Fabbrini. The attacking midfielder has undoubtedly been Boro's signing of the season, and his sharp touch and excellent vision have helped him succeed against the odds in the physical second tier. Stewart Downing is also a fine technician, and United's right-back will have to try and show him inside onto his weaker right foot. He's a fine crosser of the ball, and could cause problems on dead balls.
We haven't really a clue for either side, but here are some reasonable guesses:
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): David De Gea; Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo; Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin; Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Ashley Young; Wayne Rooney.
Middlesbrough (4-2-3-1): Tomás Mejias; Tomáš Kalas, Daniel Ayala, Ben Gibson, George Friend; Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton; Carlos de Pena, Diego Fabbrini, Stuart Downing; Kike.