Manchester United take a break from Premier League play on Wednesday to continue their defense of the Carabao Cup at Bristol City. Although United face the only lower-league club left in the competition, this quarterfinal will be no walk in the park. Lee Johnson’s Bristol City sit third in the Championship table and look strong contenders for automatic promotion into the top-flight.
Nevertheless, José Mourinho will surely ring the changes as his club makes its way through a packed December fixture list. There probably won’t be wholesale changes to the side, but the manager can certainly afford to give minutes to the lesser-used members of his squad.
That starts between the sticks, where Sergio Romero should continue his League Cup run in goal. In both previous rounds of this competition — against Burton Albion and Swansea — Romero stepped in for David De Gea, allowing only one stoppage-time goal.
Elsewhere in defense, it has been nothing but bad news for Manchester United of late. Eric Bailly will have ankle surgery and faces months of recovery, while Antonio Valencia left Sunday’s win over West Brom with a dreaded hamstring injury. Valencia tweeted afterwards that he was fine, but the veteran right-back surely won’t be risked at Ashton Gate. Matteo Darmian has not played a full match since October, but should be trusted in this one.
If Valencia’s hamstring sidelines him for any length of time, it just might prove to be Luke Shaw’s eleventh-hour chance at redemption. Without Valencia, Ashley Young could shift over to cover on the right, leaving left-back open for Shaw. Rumors continue to swirl that the 22 year-old will be off in January, but he has looked good in small doses this season, winning man-of-the-match honors in both of his starts. Can he make it three-for-three at Bristol City?
In central defense, Chris Smalling has started eighteen straight matches and could definitely use a breather. Could there be an Axel Tuanzebe sighting on Wednesday evening? The youngster has shown promise in limited appearances and just moved up the pecking order after Bailly’s surgery. Tuanzebe played in the last round against Swansea and might partner up with Victor Lindelöf for this one.
Paul Pogba returns from his three-match suspension and may find himself thrust right back into action against Bristol City. Nemanja Matić rushed back from injury to play in the important Arsenal and Manchester City matches, so Mourinho will likely give him a rest. Scott McTominay started last week against Bournemouth and earned praise from teammates and manager alike. Give the 21-year-old another start and let’s see how he pairs with Pogba in the middle.
The most intriguing subplot of the evening revolves around Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He hasn’t been named in the match-day squad in nearly a month and reports surfaced this week of a possible analysis session bust-up between Mkhitaryan and Mourinho. If he doesn’t feature versus Bristol City on Wednesday, that will not bode well for his long-term future at the club.
Up front, this must surely be the time to rest Romelu Lukaku. After the West Brom win, Jose Mourinho made a point to mention that Lukaku has played every minute so far in the Premier League. That intense workload needs to be carefully managed and it should start with a day off on Wednesday.
While some may see Manchester United’s quarterfinal draw of Bristol City as lucky, no one should expect an easy match. The Robins won at the weekend, seeing off Nottingham Forest 2-1 to solidify their spot among the Championship’s elite. Winners of four on the bounce, Bristol City present far stiffer opposition than your typical lower-league club. Don’t be surprised if these two sides face off again next season — in the Premier League.
There’s nothing more dangerous than a quality team playing at home with no pressure and no expectations. Bristol City’s assistant manager David Holden summed up just what this match means to his team: “It’s going to be fantastic to go up against such a huge team. We’ve said before that we go into every game believing we can win. We’re in good form and confidence is high.” With a spot in the semifinals on the line, the Robins will be dreaming of a giant-killing upset.
But they won’t catch Manchester United off guard.
Throughout his managerial career, José Mourinho has consistently taken the League Cup seriously and should have his players well up for this one. Even if this competition lacks the prestige of others, nothing drives Mourinho and Manchester United more than winning cups. As long as Bristol City aren’t taken lightly, United should move a step closer to silverware on Wednesday.