Manchester United finish off a three-game homestand on Saturday with an FA Cup quarter-final date with Brighton & Hove Albion. It’s been a week of highs and lows for the club — first beating Liverpool in a much-anticipated derby match, only to get knocked out of the Champions League a few days later.
Speaking to MUTV after Tuesday’s heartbreaking loss to Sevilla, José Mourinho pointed out that his squad cannot afford to linger on that result. “There is not time to be sad for a long time,” he said. “We have a match on Saturday and hopefully the players will be back on the training ground and focused on that important game.”
“We lost and tomorrow is another day,” the United manager continued. “We have no time for dramas. We have to work because on Saturday we have another match.”
And that match assumed even more importance after the Sevilla loss. The FA Cup now stands as the club’s only chance at silverware for the 2017/18 season.
It will be interesting to see how Mourinho approaches this weekend’s cup tie. He has rotated his side for previous FA Cup matches this season, but may feel the need to field his strongest team in response to the club’s Champions League exit. Hopefully, some squad players can be worked into the mix without sacrificing United’s shot at the semi-finals.
Among the possible changes: Sergio Romero, the goalkeeper of choice in the FA Cup, could give David De Gea a breather; Luke Shaw at left back; Victor Lindelöf to man the middle of defense; and both Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay back in the starting midfield.
Romelu Lukaku has played in all three FA Cup matches this season with sparkling results — four goals and an assist — so there’s no reason to expect him to be dropped. But Zlatan Ibrahimović, who recently returned to training, could be an attacking option off the bench.
Speaking of Ibra, he’s just one of several United players to return to health in the past few weeks. Pogba recovered from his gashed leg to put in a thirty-minute substitute shift midweek, while Anthony Martial also came back from his thigh injury. In defense, Eric Bailly played his second consecutive full match after a long layoff from ankle surgery.
In November, Brighton played well at Old Trafford and frustrated United for long stretches of the match. The Reds won when an Ashley Young shot ricocheted off defender Lewis Dunk for an unlucky own goal. Other than that fluky moment, United could not break through a stubborn Brighton defense.
Chris Hughton’s squad has proven to be one of the Premier League’s surprise packages this season. Brighton sit 11th in the table, although that’s only seven points above the relegation line. Last weekend, they lost to Everton, snapping a seven-match unbeaten run that included a win over Arsenal. Okay, everyone is beating Arsenal these days ... but that’s still an impressive result for the club’s first year in the top-flight.
With no midweek match, Brighton will be well-rested for their trip to Old Trafford — leaving Hughton with plenty of options for selection. “I have decisions to make, but I’m also very conscious that it’s Manchester United away at Old Trafford,” the Brighton manager told the club website. “It’s one of the toughest games that we could have. In any way that we’re going to win it, we’ll have to put in a performance that will give us a chance. I’ll look to put out the strongest side that I can to get a result.”
One player set to miss out is Anthony Knockaert. The 26-year-old forward saw red for a reckless two-footed tackle against Everton last weekend and has been suspended for the United match. Knockaert regularly starts in the Seagulls attack and will be a big loss to Brighton’s hopes of springing an upset.
United reached this stage of the competition a year ago, bowing out to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a particularly contentious match. A 35th minute Ander Herrera red card robbed the Reds of a chance at progressing to the FA Cup semi-finals. Here’s hoping for a better outcome this time.
Keep in mind — the winner for this cup tie will be decided on the night. No replays needed. If United and Brighton are still tied at the end of ninety minutes, the game goes to extra time and then, if needed, penalties.
If United are anywhere near their best, it should never come to that.
This is a must-win game against a very beatable opponent. Advancing to the FA Cup semi-finals can only help to wash away the Sevilla debacle and send the club into the international break on a high. Down to one last shot at silverware this season, Manchester United cannot let this chance slip away.