Following a tough-luck loss to Barcelona in mid-week, Manchester United return to Premier League action against West Ham United. Saturday’s late kickoff features two clubs desperately chasing European qualification for next season — with the Reds just three points off fourth and West Ham several places back of the final Europa League spot.
Wednesday night might go down as United’s fourth loss in five, but also ranks as the best team performance since last month’s win in Paris. Outside a calamitous opening period, the Reds went toe-to-toe with their Catalan guests and surely expect a better result next week in the second leg.
But, with four Premier League teams still jockeying for two unclaimed Champions League spots, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cannot afford to look ahead to next Tuesday and must name a first-choice side for the Hammers match.
In defense, both starting fullbacks are suspended for Saturday. Luke Shaw picked up his tenth yellow card of the season against Wolves last week, resulting in a two-match domestic suspension. Ashley Young, meanwhile, was sent off in the same game after two quick second-half yellow cards.
Considering Young’s recent form, this might actually be a good thing for United. He’s served the club admirably over the years, but Young’s time as a starter looks to be up. Diogo Dalot deserves a run in the side, especially with the club rumored to be exploring a big-money move for a right back this summer. Let’s find out what we have in Dalot before splashing any more cash.
At left back, Solskjaer’s options are more limited. Some speculate that the boss’s presence at last week’s U-23 match might herald a recall for Marcos Rojo. The Argentinian defender has barely featured under Solskjaer — and is not a natural fullback — but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera both missed the Barcelona loss through injury, but Scott McTominay and Fred acquitted themselves quite well in their stead. It’s taken Fred a while, but he’s finally hitting his stride and beginning to justify his £50+ million transfer fee. With Matić aging and Herrera reportedly off to PSG, these two should get plenty of playing time in the weeks ahead.
Solskjaer also expects to get Alexis Sánchez back for the Hammers’ visit. “He has done lots of injury work and is now injury-free,” the United manager said. “Now he’ll step up and train with the team. He will probably be in the squad for West Ham on Saturday and let’s see how much, and if, he plays.”
Earlier this season, Manuel Pellegrini’s side looked to be a strong challenger with Watford, Wolves, and Leicester City for seventh place. But they’ve hit the skids in 2019, including a winless run on the road dating back to the Christmas period. On Monday, West Ham lost 2-0 at Chelsea, with an Eden Hazard brace the difference.
At Stamford Bridge, Pellegrini started Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez up top, but withdrew Chicharito after a poor team performance in the first half. Robert Snodgrass came in and the re-shaped Hammers played much better. Snodgrass only got the call because the manager’s first choice, Samir Nasri, injured his calf while warming up.
Pellegrini made a lot of signings ahead of his first season in London, opting for experienced players that get forward and hold possession. The results of his summer spree? Mixed. West Ham are much improved from the Slaven Bilic and David Moyes eras, but progress hasn’t come as quickly as some fans hoped.
Still, the future looks bright. Declan Rice has established himself as one of the best young players in the Premier League, so much so that the big clubs are circling. United supposedly regard the 20-year-old as the ideal successor to Nemanja Matić. Yes, please.
Another standout is Felipe Anderson on the left wing. “From the very beginning, Felipe reacted very well to being here,” Pellegrini said. “He is a player who works a lot during the entire game and can make a real difference in the last third.”
“He can score goals, too, so I’m very happy and I know all the fans are happy with the contribution he has made to the team.”
Neither side has much margin for error in this one. Considering West Ham’s dire away form, anything less than three points would be devastating for United’s top four challenge. And, as long as we’re expecting a win, make it a big one. With the Champions League race looking to come right down to the wire, the Reds need to make up some goal difference ground on the others.
West Ham, facing long odds to make the Europa League, understand the challenge ahead. “Manchester United is always a difficult game when playing away,” Pellegrini said. “We need three points in this moment. We’ve lost some of our previous games, but we’re five points from the European spot and Manchester United are trying to reach the semi-final of the Champions League.”
“They didn’t have a good result against Barcelona, but I’m sure we will find them to be a very strong team.”