Manchester United open the 2018/19 Premier League season on Friday night with a visit from Leicester City. There’s been plenty of doom and gloom around the club this summer — including a quiet transfer window, disappointing preseason results, and an irritable José Mourinho looming over all of it.
But the Reds have a chance to change this narrative with a strong performance against Claude Puel’s side. They’ll just have to do it a bit shorthanded. All twelve United players who competed at the World Cup this summer returned to preseason training late, with Paul Pogba and others only getting back on Monday.
Marcus Rashford, Phil Jones, and Romelu Lukaku generously cut short their summer break to rejoin the squad a few days early, but remain question marks for the season opener.
Rashford might be the safest bet to go straight into Friday’s lineup. He played 63 minutes at the Allianz Arena last weekend and, with Anthony Martial back in the doghouse, looks to be in contention for a starting spot. Mourinho even rewarded the 20-year-old homegrown attacker with the #10 shirt, perhaps a sign of the important role he’ll play this season.
Whether Rashford or Martial play on Friday, it’s a safe bet that Alexis Sánchez and Juan Mata will round out United’s attack. If healthy, Lukaku won’t miss many matches this season, but Friday is probably too soon for the big Belgian.
Nemanja Matić’s injury (and subsequent surgery) threw a wrench in Mourinho’s midfield plans. Pogba surely won’t play against Leicester, so there goes 2⁄3 of the first-choice engine room. New signing Fred will make his debut alongside two backups, with Ander Herrera first in line to fill in. If Herrera sits out after picking up an injury against Bayern Munich, Mourinho will really need to consider his options.
Unfortunately, the defense is no more settled than midfield. Antonio Valencia, club captain and surefire starter at right back, left the San Jose Earthquakes match last month with an apparent leg injury. Eric Bailly, who won praise from the boss after a strong preseason, likewise limped off against Bayern Munich last weekend.
If those two are out, that leaves some combination of Matteo Darmian, Victor Lindelöf, Chris Smalling, and Luke Shaw for the backline. Phil Jones played in Germany over the weekend, but might need some more training sessions before being judged fully match-fit.
Let’s put it this way — Mourinho certainly has his hands full putting together a team for the Leicester match. And he knows it.
After the 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich, the boss warily looked ahead to the season’s start: “We have to organize the week in a way so we can be fresh for Friday. On Friday, the Premier League starts. We play for points and it’s with the players we have. There is no time to cry. Players are not going to be here on Friday and we have to go with the best possible team and with a great mentality.”
Thankfully, Leicester City have their own problems.
Like United, their biggest stars progressed all the way to the final weekend of the World Cup and just returned to training this week. Both Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire are big doubts for the trip to Old Trafford after missing virtually all of preseason.
The biggest loss, though, is Riyad Mahrez. His summer move to Manchester City leaves the Foxes desperately short on attacking talent. Puel brought in the highly-rated James Maddison from Norwich, but it’s a huge ask just to make the step up to the Premier League without adding in the pressure of replacing Mahrez too.
Leicester also scooped up Portuguese international Ricardo Pereira for £12 million. The Porto fullback played for Puel at Nice and he obviously hopes this familiarity will allow Pereira to hit the ground running and quickly adapt to life in England.
Puel helped save Leicester’s season a year ago after a rocky start under Craig Shakespeare, but mediocrity won’t suffice again. The Foxes aim to be the best of the rest this season — not quite talented enough to break into the top six, but with Europa League ambitions. Another ninth-placed finish just might cost Puel his job.
With both clubs missing key players due to the World Cup, Friday’s outcome will likely be determined by which manager copes better. The always-proud Mourinho can’t be pleased with the avalanche of negative stories this summer, so he should relish this chance to once again show why he’s among the best managers in the world.
Plus, there’s the transfer window wild-card to consider. Before the window closes on Thursday, there’s every chance that United will make at least one more big signing. Whoever comes in — whether Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire, or one of the other rumors — probably wouldn’t play on Friday, but would at least provide a morale boost.
Many expect a slow start from Manchester United this season. It’s been a difficult preseason and a bunch of the club's top players will be unavailable on Friday. But whatever side José Mourinho names should have enough about it to defeat Leicester City. The Old Trafford crowd will be in good voice and the players need to lay down a marker by grabbing all three points.