Manchester United return to action on Saturday against Swansea City at Old Trafford. With the 2017/18 season’s final international break now in the rear-view mirror, the Reds can turn their attention to the business end of the Premier League campaign.
But, first, they must avoid the post-break blues. In September, the club held a 100% record in the league until drawing away to Stoke City in the first game back from international duty. Likewise, the dour 0-0 stalemate at Anfield immediately followed the October break.
United showed better stuff a month later, beating Newcastle 4-1 at Old Trafford. Hopefully, Saturday’s performance will be more of the same.
This international break brought both good and bad news for the club. Romelu Lukaku scored two goals in Belgium’s win over Saudi Arabia. That brace continues his fine form, with ten goals already for United in 2018. With Zlatan now soaking up the sun in Los Angeles, the Reds need Big Rom to stay sharp in front of goal.
At Wembley, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young played well in England’s 1-1 draw with Italy. With Luke Shaw on the outs with Jose Mourinho (and that might be putting it mildly), Young must stay healthy and in form to keep the left side of United’s defense settled. He appeared to pick up a slight knock at the end of Tuesday’s friendly and will be assessed by the club’s medical staff ahead of this weekend’s match.
The star of the break, though, was Paul Pogba. At a time when the midfielder’s relationship with Mourinho remains under the microscope, Pogba let his play do the talking against Russia. His fine free kick goal punctuated a top-notch performance that also included an assist.
Unfortunately, not everyone made it through the break unscathed. Starting in goal for Argentina, Sergio Romero left the match in Spain after only 22 minutes due to a dangerous collision with Diego Costa. This temporarily moves Joel Pereira up the goalkeeping pecking order at United.
Scott McTominay also returned to Carrington banged up. The young midfielder withdrew from Scotland’s camp with an undisclosed injury just days after making his international debut. McTominay appears doubtful for Saturday.
That might mean a recall for Ander Herrera, who told United Review that he’s back in training and ready for action. Herrera has been out for over a month with a hamstring injury and will be needed if McTominay faces an extended spell on the sidelines.
Swansea have come a long way since these clubs last met in August (an easy 4-0 Manchester United victory). In fact, when Carlos Carvalhal replaced Paul Clement at the tail end of 2017, the Swans looked dead and buried. Or, as Carvalhal put it, his new team was “near the crematorium.”
But Swansea have rallied under the Portuguese manager, upsetting both Liverpool and Arsenal so far in 2018. This uptick in form vaulted the club out of the relegation zone and into fourteenth place. The Swans have shown drastic improvement, but their sorry start to the season still leaves them in danger. Only three points currently separate them from a return to the Championship.
For much of this season, the attacking front of Wilfried Bony and Jordan Ayew struggled to find the net — combining for only eight league goals. Then, last month, Bony suffered a ligament tear in his knee and will miss the rest of the season.
Ayew has improved under Carvalho’s tutelage, but Swansea desperately need more goals. One-time United target Renato Sanches joined the Swans on loan from Bayern Munich, but has failed to impress during his time at the Liberty Stadium. Sanches might finally be ready to return from a long injury layoff this weekend — and must start fulfilling some of his enormous potential.
Swansea typically play with a back three, although both wing-backs link up with the backline when the opposition has the ball. United have been known to struggle against teams content to sit back and allow plenty of possession. This would be an ideal match for Alexis Sanchez to make a statement — his ability to unlock stubborn defenses would take the United attack to a whole new level.
As this Premier League season enters the home stretch, Manchester United just need to take it one match at a time. “We will play at Old Trafford against Swansea and a victory would be very important to show that we want to maintain our position in the table,” Juan Mata wrote on his official blog. “Then, we will have plenty of time to think about the derby and the rest of the games ahead.”
Mata has the right idea — stay focused on taking all three points on Saturday before letting thoughts about the upcoming derby creep in. Plus, an emphatic win this weekend will only buoy the mood in United’s camp ahead of the all-important showdown next Saturday.