Manchester United travel to Leicester this weekend for an FA Cup quarter-final at the King Power Stadium. United, back from Milan after their 1-0 away win in the San Siro on Thursday night, will be dusting themselves off for another tilt in a cup competition.
United’s 2-1 aggregate victory over a poor AC Milan side means progress to the Europa League quarter-finals where they will play Granada. Should United prevail over the weakest side left in the competition, a semi-final with Ajax or Roma awaits.
Leicester City, one of the main threats to United’s league position, were knocked out of the Europa League last month by Slavia Prague. Brendan Rodgers’ side, therefore, will be desperate to go all the way in the FA Cup with no European commitments, while trying to secure Champions League football for the Foxes next season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær, despite the manager’s insistence that their league standing is the barometer of success, is similarly going all out for a trophy. Players returning from injury are giving a welcome boost to United’s jaded squad and careful steering is still required from Solskjær to safely navigate the next days, weeks, and couple of months. United’s important, if uninspiring, 1-0 win at West Ham was another hurdle ticked off – but required rushing Marcus Rashford back and not risking any substitutions during the game. Those same eleven players started again on Thursday, ten of whom played the full match.
After this weekend, a pause for the management while the players – inexplicably – set off on international duty keeping up the unsustainable schedule of three fixtures a week. April and May will be like wading through treacle, never mind the Euros. But for now, for United, it’s all about a semi-final spot in the FA Cup.
Big, big 45 minutes for Dean Henderson in the second half at the San Siro. Henderson was always going to have chances to redeem himself after his flap and the last-minute goal conceded at Old Trafford against Milan. Eerily, the save from Zlatan Ibrahimović’s header was a carbon copy of the one fluffed in the first leg and capped off an impressive redemption for Henderson keeping Milan at bay.
The upshot of having a commanding and confident goalkeeper is the effect it has on the defence. Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, and Eric Bailly are all benefiting greatly from Henderson’s presence off his line, kicking, and distribution. Henderson’s authority provides calm for those in front and has enabled the backline to comfortably push higher up the field.
Solskjær can regardless justify Henderson again for the cup tie on Sunday, where United will want to frustrate Leicester’s forwards as they did to Manchester City and Chelsea recently. Should Henderson shine at the King Power and United progress, the England goalkeeper must continue as United’s no. 1 when the Premier League resumes. If only for the defenders.
United’s captain is in a good run of form ahead of the trip back to Leicester for the second time this season. Maguire has raised his performance levels against the better sides recently and will need to do so again at the weekend. Bailly could come in to partner Maguire, freshen things up, and provide some extra recovery speed for his teammate. Equally, if not rested, Lindelöf’s current form and experience to manage the bigger games would be welcome.
United may still want an upgrade in the summer to slot in alongside Maguire. In the meantime, a less skittish set of centre-backs is a real bonus for United’s run-in and for Maguire.
Remarkably continues to be United’s main threat going forward, Luke Shaw was fantastic again in midweek. Shaw’s trickery and probing down the left was a constant headache for Milan. Still, Shaw will be happy to have Paul Pogba back to lighten his creative load.
Oh Paul, how we have missed you. Please don’t leave us in the summer, yeah?
Pogba is back and he returned with a bang getting a vital away goal in the San Siro with a typically composed and smart finish three minutes after stepping on the field. Pogba visibly improved everyone around him, not least Fred and Scott McTominay. Rashford was replaced by Pogba who occupied his position wide left.
Solskjær may be forced to deploy Pogba there again against Leicester, ignoring lessons learned earlier in the season fitting in Fred, McTominay, and Pogba in the big games where Pogba’s impact was lessened. The decision, though, may rest with who’s available ahead of the midfield.
“We haven’t really got to the bottom of it with Edinson,” Solskjær disclosed. “So, it’s down to him.” We can assume Solskjær is quietly fuming with Edinson Cavani, here, and quite right too. United are desperate for forwards at the moment. Rashford, who is plainly not fit enough to be playing, was on the periphery against West Ham and should have, ideally, stayed at home rather than travel to Milan for a dismal 45 minutes.
Solskjær sounds more hopeful on Anthony Martial despite similar issues with regaining fitness to play. Martial has shown once more against Manchester City this month he can turn around bad periods of form and United need options on the left and middle of the front three on Sunday. Daniel James’s effectiveness is increasingly wearing thin which means there’s only Mason Greenwood currently available who would be selected with a fully fit squad.
Solskjær: “The next step for him [Greenwood] is to stop thinking about finishing because he doesn’t have to think about it. It’s just instinct, just do it. Just trust yourself, all the other bits are there.” #mulive [mu]— utdreport (@utdreport) March 19, 2021
Greenwood’s future is as a central striker but the opportunity at present has come out of necessity rather than readiness. Sometimes chances earlier than intended can be a good thing, hastening development, and Greenwood looks ready now – but he’s in a period currently where he’s not getting the return in goals for similar effort last season. With patience and time, the goals will come for Greenwood. United, unfortunately, need those goals now.