Manchester United travel to East Sussex for a rare Friday night match with Brighton & Hove Albion. With only three league games left to play, the Reds need just four points to clinch second place. Brighton, on the other hand, remain right in the thick of the relegation battle.
Already winless in seven, Chris Hughton’s side must be cursing the scheduling gods for an absolutely brutal run-in. Brighton ground out a 0-0 draw with Burnley last weekend, but will be hard pressed to add any more points to their tally by season’s end. After United’s visit on Friday, Albion finish the season with trips to Manchester City and Liverpool.
True, they’re still five points above Southampton and somewhat likely to survive for a second Premier League season — but no one at the club can afford to rest easy yet.
One small bit of good news for Brighton is the return of Davy Propper from suspension. The Dutch midfielder had started every league game until picking up a red card against Huddersfield Town last month and should provide a boost to his struggling club.
Manager Chris Hughton struck an optimistic tone when discussing Friday’s match. “We’ve had two very good away performances against them,” he told Brighton’s website. “At this moment, we haven’t really been embarrassed by the big six clubs. We’re going to have to show our qualities in the next games and believe we can get more points.”
He’s not wrong.
In two matches at Old Trafford this season, Brighton pushed United all the way to the end both times. The clubs last met on St. Patrick’s Day in the FA Cup quarterfinals, when goals from Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic secured United’s passage to the next round. No one should expect an easy result on Friday, especially since United have only managed three goals in two matches against Brighton so far.
And scoring won’t get any easier with Lukaku doubtful to play. He limped off the pitch on Sunday after picking up an ankle injury early in the second half. This would be just the second Premier League match this season that Lukaku misses — but getting him healthy for the FA Cup final on May 19 is the overriding concern. It’s hard to believe that Jose Mourinho would take any chances with his star forward in such a low-stakes match.
Thankfully, early reports from Carrington suggest that Lukaku will recover in time to lead the line against Chelsea. But Friday’s trip to Brighton should afford either Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial the chance to start up front in the Belgian’s absence.
The team sheet for Sunday’s Arsenal match brought one big surprise — Victor Lindelof starting at center back. He repaid the manager’s confidence with a man-of-the-match performance and now must be looking for a steady run in the side until season’s end.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the young defender. He got off to a slow start and played sparingly in the opening months, but seems to be winning Mourinho over with his technical skills and calm distribution. Lindelof looked assured against shorthanded Arsenal and has a chance to end his first season in Manchester on a high note.
Another squad player who might feature on Friday is Scott McTominay. He hasn’t played much in recent weeks, but remains a firm Mourinho favorite. After all, the manager surprised everyone at this week’s end of season awards night by honoring the 21-year-old midfielder as the Manager’s Player of the Year.
The biggest story of the week, though, might be the resurgence of Marouane Fellaini. It seems like just yesterday that Fellaini had one foot out the door, but that all apparently changed on Sunday. The super-sub’s looping header in second half stoppage time broke Arsenal hearts and proved the perfect send-off for Arsene Wenger.
But, even more surprising, Mourinho revealed afterwards that Fellaini is close to signing a new contract. The gangly midfielder might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but does provide the manager a unique option off the bench with a knack for scoring big goals.
Sunday’s win over Arsenal makes it nine wins in eleven for Manchester United. It hasn’t always been pretty, but this squad has learned how to get the result.
But they face a different kind of challenge on Friday. Playing a desperate team — on the road — is never easy. Mourinho’s men certainly aren’t on the beach, but must be sure to keep their focus and momentum high ahead of May 19. The entire season depends on it.