Manchester United wrap up their Champions League Group H slate on Wednesday night in Spain. With both the Reds and Juventus already qualified for the knockout stage — and Valencia assured of the group’s Europa League spot — don’t count on a particularly climactic affair. Unless Young Boys pull off the upset of the tournament in Turin, United will finish second behind Juve.
A relatively meaningless match comes at the perfect time for José Mourinho’s team. Besieged with injury problems — and facing a difficult match at unbeaten Liverpool this weekend — the manager should reach deep into his bench for this one.
When asked about Valencia, Mourinho laid out his plans for rotation. “There are people that need to rest and there are people that need to play,” he said. “It’s a question of trust. A question of justice, too.”
“If I say [Sergio] Romero plays, obviously he deserves to play. If I say a kid that is working every day like a tiger and is not playing much like Andreas Pereira is going to have a start, I’m going to make changes in the team because we managed to qualify.”
Sure sounds like Romero and Pereira are in line for starts at the Mestalla. Romero hasn’t played in goal since the Carabao Cup defeat to Derby County in September, while Pereira’s been missing since a six-minute cameo at Chelsea. The lithe Brazilian midfielder played for Valencia on loan last season, making Wednesday an ideal time to re-integrate him into the side.
Fred is another potential recall. Last week, Mourinho admitted that this summer’s big signing has not played much of late due to United’s struggling defense. With the backline leaking goals, the manager feels the need to play midfielders more mindful of providing balance and stability. If the club makes a few defensive additions in January, technical midfielders like Fred and Pereira should get more playing time.
Mourinho also revealed that the recently-benched Paul Pogba will anchor the starting eleven on Wednesday. “He has the potential to be a fantastic player,” the manager told BBC Sport. “Against Valencia, he is going to start and he is going to have a fantastic game to show everyone how good he is.”
It looks like, after some tough love (comparing Pogba to a virus), it’s back to a charm offensive to get the best out of the club’s record signing. Perhaps, after watching United romp past Fulham from the bench, Pogba will heed his manager’s pleas to play in control and protect possession. The occasional track-back wouldn’t hurt either.
The Valencia trip presents a great chance to give those players carrying knocks a couple of extra days to rest ahead of Liverpool at the weekend. Anthony Martial missed out on the Fulham win after suffering an injury against Arsenal and probably won’t be risked on Wednesday. Luke Shaw is another new addition to the injured list — pulling up lame while warming up for Fulham.
And, please, take pity on Nemanja Matić and give the man a rest.
United head to Spain fresh off an emphatic win over Fulham. The Reds rolled past their visitors 4-1, with goals scored by four different players. Encouragingly, that includes tallies by Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford. They’ve struggled to put the ball in the net this season, so hopefully this opens the floodgates for both.
Valencia, on the other hand, were whistled off their own pitch on Saturday after a 1-1 draw with Sevilla. Mouctar Diakhaby’s last-gasp equalizer rescued a point for the home side, but the supporters were distinctly unimpressed with the club’s ninth draw of the league season.
Valencia sit in a very disappointing 15th place — a league placement even Manchester United can look down upon. They’ve scored an anemic 12 goals in league play through 15 matches, although a stingy defense has kept them clear of the relegation zone. In fact, only Atletico Madrid allow fewer goals in La Liga.
In their last seven games, Valencia have only lost to Real Madrid and Juventus. But, until they figure out a way to score more goals, this season will remain a struggle. There’s just no prolific scorer in this attacking group — Kevin Gameiro (2), Santi Mina (2), Michy Batshuayi (1), and Rodrigo (1). Even worse, there’s no goals coming from midfield either.
In a lot of ways, this match is all about Liverpool. José Mourinho must walk the tightrope between resting his best players ahead of the trip to the Premier League leaders and not sacrificing any momentum gained from the big win over Fulham. Let’s just hope for no more injuries.