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Starting XI: Watford vs. Manchester United

Christmas is canceled if United don’t win this one

Liverpool FC v Watford FC - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

After advancing to the Carabao Cup semifinals in midweek, Manchester United now travel to Watford on Sunday needing all three points. Here's everything that you need to know ahead of the match.

(1) Against Colchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fielded a mix of regulars and squad players. Sergio Romero replaced David De Gea in goal, Ashley Young and Axel Tuanzebe started in defense, Nemanja Matić and Andreas Pereira held down midfield, and Mason Greenwood got the nod in attack. Luke Shaw started, as well, possibly hinting that Brandon Williams will be first-choice at left-back for the Watford match.

(2) Even with Ole ringing the changes, the makeshift United eleven had no excuse for struggling throughout much of the first half. Colchester are decent by League Two standards — and held both Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur scoreless in earlier cup ties — but, for a United side often lacking in creativity, it wasn’t terribly encouraging.

(3) Of course, the Reds sprang to life after the break and crushed the upstart Us with a quick barrage of goals. Marcus Rashford opened the scoring (notching his 14th of the season), Mason Greenwood forced an own goal with a tricky cross, and Anthony Martial capped off the rout with a fine finish. Cup ties are all about advancing — in whatever way necessary — and now we get a two-legged Manchester derby in the new year.

(4) Until Manchester United show the ability to break down compact defenses, a match like Watford on Sunday will cause more worry than it should. No doubt the hosts will sit deep in a low block, concede lots of possession, and dare the Reds to find a way through. It’s telling that Rashford’s opener against Colchester came on a quick-hitter, with Matić setting him free with a long through-ball. United remain particularly dangerous on the counter.

(5) Keep an eye on Sunday’s Tottenham-Chelsea match, as at least one of the two teams directly above the Reds will drop points. After blitzing through the Premier League (United excepted) in the season’s first two months, Frank Lampard’s side has looked exceedingly vulnerable of late. Spurs, on the other hand, are ascendant under José Mourinho and could end the weekend in the top four — a dramatic change from their lowly position at the end of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign. If United still plan on qualifying for the Champions League by finishing fourth, they probably need to leapfrog both of these clubs by season’s end.

(6) Paul Pogba’s “imminent” return just keeps hitting roadblock after roadblock. “Of all things, he’s struck down ill now,” Solskjaer said before the Colchester match. “He’s been off for two or three days — three days probably — so that’s not beneficial. That’s probably set him back quite a bit.” And, since nothing with Pogba is ever simple, he posted a video of himself dancing at his brother’s wedding from last weekend. Some fans took that as proof that this mystery illness is just Pogba’s latest gambit in trying to force his way to Real Madrid in January, while others have stuck by the star midfielder’s side. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(7) Chaos reigns at Vicarage Road. Javi Gracia couldn’t pull Watford out of a tailspin that stretched back to last season and lost his job in September. Quique Sanchez Flores then made a (briefly) triumphant return to his former club, only to be shown the door after less than 90 days on the job. Now, Nigel Pearson is in charge. This marks his first time back in the Premier League since leaving Leicester City in 2015.

(8) One common problem: the club’s record signing, Ismaila Sarr, has failed to launch. The 21-year-old has battled injuries — and a tough adjustment to life in England — with only one Premier League goal to his name so far. Sarr boasts the raw talent to lift Watford up the table, but he’ll still be shaking his head over a woeful miss at Anfield last weekend that dearly cost his club. If Pearson can get Sarr firing, Watford’s survival chances look much brighter.

(9) That Liverpool match came so close to being a turning point for the Hornets. The Merseysiders are mercilessly lapping the Premier League field this season, so no one gave Watford much of a chance. Understandably so, as they lost 2-0 and slipped further into the relegation mire. But Sarr’s chance nearly knotted the score with just minutes remaining, before Mo Salah put the result out of reach late on. Beggars can’t be choosers, so Pearson should take some encouragement from that battling performance.

(10) Still, with Watford rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, moral victories don’t count for much. Pearson seems to understand that — and the importance of building a winning mentality among his demoralized players:

First and foremost, it’s the mindset of the players. If it has been damaged, if their confidence has been eroded through us not being able to find the answers this season, then myself and my staff will do everything we can to help them on the journey. We’ve got to start winning football matches and, more than anything, our players need to be free enough to go out and play.

(11) Let’s be honest: Manchester United should put this lot to the sword. By all accounts, Watford’s performance against Liverpool was a marked improvement over most of this season — and it still produced this raft of lowlights and bloopers that wouldn’t be out of place in the Sunday leagues...