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Starting XI: Manchester United vs. Partizan Belgrade

The Reds march on to the knockout rounds with a win

Manchester United Training and Press Conference - AON Training Complex Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

Manchester United return home to Old Trafford on Thursday for a Europa League showdown with Partizan Belgrade. Here’s everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) Manchester United (7 points) sit atop Group L at the halfway point with AZ Alkmaar just two points behind in second. Partizan Belgrade are third with four points and winless FC Astana bring up the rear. Victory on Thursday would send United through to the knockout rounds, allowing the club even more flexibility to play the youth in the last two group stage matches.

(2) What Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after the October 24 win in Belgrade:

When we host them in two weeks’ time, we’re going to go all out to get that win. Then, the last two games, we’ll know we’re through. It’s a great position to be in. We haven’t conceded a goal so, defensively, we’ve done really well, but we need to score more goals.

(3) In that match, United narrowly edged their hosts 1-0 via a first-half penalty from Anthony Martial. Despite holding the majority of possession, the Reds did little with it. They were outshot 14-5 and never looked like scoring from open play. That’s been a season-long storyline for Ole’s crew — without a penalty, United struggles.

(4) Case in point, Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Bournemouth. After winning three straight road matches, United fell short on the South Coast in one of their poorest performances of the season. Besides one penalty shout and a Mason Greenwood strike that hit the post, the Reds offered very little going forward and were deservedly beaten.

(5) A recurring problem for United is the #10 spot. Whether Solskjaer opts for 3-5-2 (some call it a 3-4-1-2) or 4-2-3-1, there’s a black hole at #10. No one — not Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, or Juan Mata — have done anything in that position all season. No wonder that United cannot seem to break down opponents sitting deep in a low block. Pray to the transfer gods that James Maddison gets here soon.

(6) Manchester United U23s defeated Middlesbrough 4-1 on Monday night and provided a few hints about Solskjaer’s senior team selection for Thursday. Tahith Chong played the full 90, while Angel Gomes (possibly injured), James Garner, and Mason Greenwood weren’t even named in the squad. Expect those three to be in the running for playing time against Partizan Belgrade.

(7) One name missing from that list is 19-year-old Brandon Williams, who will likely sit out on Thursday. That’s because Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card of the season on Saturday and will now miss this weekend’s match against Brighton. Barring an unexpected recovery from Luke Shaw, Williams should be in line to make his first-ever Premier League start on Sunday. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

(8) Since losing to Manchester United two weeks ago, Partizan Belgrade have bounced back pretty well in the Serbian SuperLiga. The Steamroller lived up to their nickname with two wins from three, both by 4-0 margins. Partizan will arrive at Old Trafford full of confidence and a belief that the October 24 loss to United was unlucky.

(9) They certainly had their chances in that one. In the first half alone, Umar Sadiq hit the post and Takuma Asano shot narrowly wide. Then, after the break, Bebras Natcho (twice), Asano again, and Seydouba Soumah all had excellent chances to even the score.

(10) Thursday is David De Gea’s 29th birthday, though he’ll likely spend it on the bench as Sergio Romero typically plays in this competition. Manchester United have not yet allowed a goal through three group stage matches and, counting the 2017 final against Ajax, have four straight clean sheets in the Europa League. If Romero and company can pull another one off on Thursday, United will equal the EL record for consecutive shutouts.

(11) And, last but not least, Zoran Tosic makes his glorious homecoming to Old Trafford this week. Tosic played for United in 2009 and 2010, but only managed to make five appearances in a red shirt. Partizan held Tosic out of their 4-0 win over Vojvodina at the weekend, so he will be well-rested for this one. Although Tosic notched two goals and two assists in Europa League qualifying, he hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet yet in the group stage.