It’s Huddersfield Town again as Manchester United travel to West Yorkshire on Saturday for an FA Cup fifth round matchup. This makes the third meeting between these two sides in 2017/18, with each winning once on home soil.
Just two weeks ago, United ran out deserved 2-0 winners over the Terriers at Old Trafford. But, since then, the clubs have headed in opposite directions. The Reds barely showed a pulse at Newcastle last weekend, while Huddersfield Town have won back-to-back matches by a 4-1 scoreline.
In that February 3 match against Huddersfield, José Mourinho rang the changes by dropping Paul Pogba and shuffling his defensive backline. He will likely adopt the same approach on Saturday — especially with the start of Champions League knockout round play awaiting in midweek.
Wednesday’s match in Spain surely looms over Mourinho’s squad selection this weekend. The FA Cup definitely stands as the club’s best chance for silverware this season, but the first team must be in optimal condition for the all-important Champions League.
Expect Mourinho to try to thread the needle — advancing in the domestic cup with a rotated squad, while keeping his stars fresh for Sevilla.
Huddersfield Town won’t be pushovers, though. After the 2-0 victory at Old Trafford, Mourinho complimented their defensive setup: “We had to be patient, but had to keep the intensity high. We had to break down the Berlin Wall organized so well by David Wagner.”
That defensive emphasis by Huddersfield ceded 74% possession to United, but the Reds struggled to carve out clear-cut scoring chances. The Terriers can relate — they mustered no shots on target and never looked like breaching the Manchester United defense. It was hardly a scintillating day of football.
On Saturday, Sergio Romero should be back in goal after deputizing for David De Gea so far in this competition. In front of him, though, the manager has some tough decisions to make. Chris Smalling fell on his face against Newcastle last weekend — and Phil Jones didn’t do that much better. Both might find themselves dropped. Or starting in this one and replaced for the Champions League.
Either way, Eric Bailly can’t get back soon enough.
Elsewhere in the squad, Scott McTominay should get a starting nod in midfield after staking a strong claim for more playing time last time out against Huddersfield Town. Ander Herrera looks set to miss out with a thigh injury, while there’s some optimism that Marcus Rashford could make his return this weekend.
And, although he’s not having his best season, the club could definitely use him.
After Sunday’s 1-0 loss at Newcastle, Mourinho bemoaned his side’s less-than-clinical finishing. “We could be here for 10 hours and we wouldn’t score a goal,” he said. “When you see the amount of chances we lost, starting in the first half when [Martial] was facing the keeper. In the second half, we had Alexis with an open goal.”
While Sánchez came up empty on Tyneside, he gave the Terriers defense fits earlier this month. The Chilean proved a constant threat — winning a penalty, scoring off the rebound, and controlling play all afternoon long. Huddersfield Town had no answer for United’s new #7 other than to bring him down early and often. In all, Sánchez was fouled seven times as the visitors tried to manhandle him out of the game.
It didn’t work.
Nevertheless, David Wagner sounds like he’s ready to try again. “If [Sánchez] will be on the pitch, then we try to defend him,” the Huddersfield Town manager said. “If this means sometimes he is too quick, we have to foul him. It is not something that we like to do, but this happens and it is because he is a top-quality player.”
His United counterpart might be trying to be The Well-Behaved One these days, but will surely be spitting mad if the referee fails to protect Sánchez from an overly-physical Terriers defense. Sánchez often gets targeted by opposing defenses, but Huddersfield Town took that to a whole new level last time out.
While the FA Cup certainly ranks below a Premier League title or Champions League glory, Manchester United cannot afford to take a realistic shot at silverware for granted. The club’s league form has faltered in the past few weeks, so a win over Huddersfield Town to clinch a spot in the quarterfinals might lift spirits ahead of the crucial Sevilla and Chelsea matches.
Let’s make no mistake on Saturday and avoid a replay, please.