With 10 games remaining for Manchester United in the Premier League, they host West Ham United at Old Trafford on Sunday evening. United, in second, are six points ahead of fifth-placed West Ham in the league, and both teams will be after all three points to boost their chances of a top four finish.
West Ham, under David Moyes, are having a fantastic season and have maintained their solid run of results this calendar year with defeats only to Manchester City and Liverpool in the league. Jesse Lingard, on loan from United, will not be eligible for selection to play at Old Trafford which, given the positive impact he’s had on the Hammers since joining in January, will be a bonus for the Reds.
United outplayed Manchester City winning 2-0 in a thoroughly absorbing match last weekend and their best performance of the season. Typically for United of late, they followed it up with a lacklustre and disjointed showing at home to an understrength AC Milan in the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday. The 1-1 first-leg draw with Milan means that, unlike in the previous round, United will have to go all out away in the San Siro next week. Presumably, that means not having Fred, Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matić, Luke Shaw, Alex Telles, Harry Maguire, Eric Bertrand Bailly, and Brandon Williams all on the pitch at the same time.
United have played West Ham twice already this season, knocking David Moyes’s side out of the FA Cup in the fifth round last month, and also taking three points away from the London Stadium in December.
United will not play another league fixture until April after this weekend and can ill afford another off night with Leicester City and Chelsea chasing.
There’s no getting away from it. A sloppy and costly error from Dean Henderson on Thursday, with seconds remaining on the clock, turned a very good 1-0 home win advantage into a precarious 1-1. To put it in context, when United have failed to win the first leg at home, they have only then gone through twice in their last eight ties in European competition.
MUFC 1 AC Milan 1. Milan deserved late goal. Europa League and no fans meant it was a shadow of what games between these two should be. Spectacular pass and Utd goal between Bruno and Amad, two players who started their pro careers very close to Milan. San Siro it is...— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) March 11, 2021
United were not unlucky, either. The first half against Milan was back to their dreary, plodding worst and United could have been two down at half-time. Ole Gunnar Solskjær felt this drop in performance was understandable given their efforts at the Etihad but the manager will be concerned that the City result is an exception rather than providing a catalyst to get out of a bad patch of form.
On the 92nd minute, Henderson seemed to be caught in two minds whether to come for the delivery from a corner and was on the backfoot when the free header comically flew in over his head. It wasn’t a good look for Henderson. However, the United goalkeeper will have ample opportunity in the next games – especially if United progress to the quarter-finals of the Europa League – to brush off the mistake and continue his steady presence in David de Gea’s absence. Whether that blemish knocks Henderson’s otherwise unflappable confidence will be fascinating to see play out.
A solid performance amongst the lethargy at Old Trafford on Thursday, Eric Bailly was one of United’s few bright spots. Bailly provided a welcome foil for Maguire with his pace and reading of the match, bailing out his partner in central defence on occasions.
Victor Lindelöf is expected to return on Sunday having sat the Milan game out on the bench – but Bailly is pushing for more than a backup role and, if he continues in this vein, should be rewarded with a start at the weekend rather than just in midweek.
United need to freshen things up in central midfield and Matić is no longer the answer. Donny van de Beek, when available, is the obvious call to inject some creativity but we appear to be closer to Paul Pogba returning than that happening.
Axel Tuanzebe is able to play the defensive midfield role more than competently and could provide United with some freshness. McTominay played 90 minutes against City and Milan and looked below par on Thursday in terms of fitness. Fred would benefit from a dynamic holding player behind him – so, too, would Bruno Fernandes. Fernandes can then spend more time higher up the pitch and less time searching for the ball.
McTominay will be needed for both Milan and Leicester in the cups – competitions Solskjær is clearly intent on winning with Manchester City so far ahead in the league. If McTominay’s struggling, Tuanzebe may be the better gamble on Sunday.
Rashford and Greenwood
Both scored in the 3-1 comeback at the London Stadium in December, and both will be required if Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani are unavailable.
Rashford, if possible, will need to be rushed back from injury, while Greenwood could play up front for United as he did in the second half against Milan.
United’s other positive midweek but the teenager didn’t get the winner, sadly. Still, a la Rashford in the Europa League, Amad Diallo scored a remarkable debut goal and evoked memories of Javier Hernández at Stoke City with an inspired backwards header which looped over the stranded Milan ‘keeper. Quite the first chapter in his United career for the Ivorian.
With all United’s attacking players dropping like flies in either fitness or confidence or both, Amad’s exuberance could be just the tonic for a jaded side.