Fresh off a thrilling midweek Champions League win, Manchester United travel to Southampton for Saturday’s late kickoff. And, for once, the opposition faces more questions and managerial chaos than the Reds.
Southampton sit joint-bottom and, after last weekend’s capitulation at Fulham, the vultures are circling over Mark Hughes. After squandering a golden opportunity against Crystal Palace, United must capitalize on this one.
Following that Palace draw, José Mourinho accused several players of lacking the necessary heart and desire. He backed up that criticism with six changes for the Young Boys match, shaking up the side in hopes of a better effort. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku dropped to the bench, Fred and Antonio Valencia came back in out of the cold, and Alexis Sánchez didn’t even make the match-day squad.
This new-look United huffed and puffed — outshooting their Swiss visitors 21-11 — but found few cracks in a stubborn Young Boys defense. For 90 minutes, it looked like a replay of the Palace match and another disappointing draw. But newly-shorn Marouane Fellaini, playing in an advanced position, came to the rescue in stoppage time and delivered a 1-0 United victory.
Coupled with Juventus’s win over Valencia, the Reds are now officially through to the knockout stage of Europe’s premier competition. It might not have been pretty — a massive understatement — but Mourinho’s men got the job done.
“We are not a team that is scoring a lot of goals,” the manager explained to MUTV. “We feel that. In the Champions League, we have qualified with one goal scored at home. It is a negative record, but it is fantastic that we have qualified from such a difficult group. I think the boys feel it on their shoulders. I have very tired players and that is what I like. It means that they gave everything and their effort was big.”
Victor Lindelöf will be out until Christmas, but the rest of the squad appears relatively healthy. Phil Jones stepped in for Lindelöf and helped the United backline earn its second straight clean sheet. Sure, the lightning-quick reflexes of David de Gea deserve a lot of the credit, but it’s still a nice achievement for the much-maligned defense.
Lost in Fellaini’s late winner was the deft flick-on by Lukaku that set up his compatriot in the box. A few weeks ago, Mourinho lamented that the forward’s struggles in front of goal were negatively affecting the other aspects of his game. That headed assist might be the first sign of Lukaku rounding back into form. More of that, please.
A thought for the future: Tuesday’s win at Old Trafford renders the club’s trip to Valencia next month somewhat meaningless. There’s very little chance of edging out Juve to top Group H, so Mourinho could rotate his side ahead of the big trip to Anfield.
Hopefully, Tuesday night also restored some of the confidence and momentum lost against Crystal Palace. “The win is good for confidence,” Fellaini told BT Sport, “but now we have the next game in Southampton and we have to be ready.”
United cannot afford to slip up on the south coast this weekend. Southampton are an utter mess. Put them to the sword, collect three points, and move on to Arsenal.
It all hit rock bottom for the Saints on Saturday with a loss to last-placed Fulham. Southampton now join the Cottagers and Cardiff City at the foot of the table. On Monday, hopes soared when rumors of Mark Hughes’s dismissal made the rounds on social media. Alas, it turned out to be incorrect and the former Red will still be prowling the St. Mary’s touchline this weekend.
To be fair, it’s not all the manager’s fault. The club’s policy of selling on its best players for huge profits finally looks to be taking its toll. There would surely be no relegation battle with the likes of Sadio Mane, Luke Shaw, and Virgil Van Dijk in the squad.
Southampton are not without talent. Danny Ings and Charlie Austin lead the line, although Ings remains questionable with a hamstring injury. Stuart Armstrong, a new signing from Celtic, scored twice from midfield in the loss at Fulham. Other decent names like Nathan Redmond, Oriol Romeu, Manolo Gabbiadini, and Ryan Bertrand round out the team.
The results just haven’t been there.
It didn’t get any better on Tuesday when Leicester City bounced the Saints out of the Carabao Cup on penalties. Southampton look totally bereft of confidence. Now, it’s up to Mourinho and his players to ruthlessly exploit that this weekend.
Despite the sour taste left by the Palace result, United actually rose a spot in the Premier League table. Saturday brings another chance to make up lost ground — with Everton just one point above in 6th. Plus, after spending most of the season as the odds-on favorite for the sack, Mourinho might relish the irony of dealing Hughes a fatal blow.
But let’s not leave it until stoppage time. The poor water bottles can’t take all the excitement.