Manchester United head to Aston Villa on Sunday in the Premier League. One of the fondly riotous aways for travelling United supporters in the league calendar, United will have a tricky afternoon in a muted Villa Park.
Mid-table Villa, who’ve most recently beaten Everton, should give United the runaround after their distractions on and off the pitch. A week prior, United’s only headache into this game would have been returning from Rome after playing on Thursday night – still a sizable niggle. Now, United are staring down the barrel of three league fixtures in five days. Plus the mental cloud of their fans having protested with direct action at Old Trafford cancelling one of their biggest games of the season, and the threat of more action to come.
United’s display against Roma was always going to be a little lax, given the 6-2 semi-final first-leg lead, and further distracted minds would have been forgiven under the circumstances. You wouldn’t have guessed United had just reached a European final at full-time, then compared with scenes from Villarreal at the Emirates.
The Premier League have decided when United play – and they’ve ensured all their remaining home games will be midweek, hoping to avoid the bank holiday numbers in attendance outside the ground last weekend. Sadly, that will probably be quite effective. Joel Glazer has since spoken, for what that is worth.
No firm commitments. Just more empty promises.— The Busby Babe (@TheBusbyBabe) May 7, 2021
Do one, Joel. https://t.co/arw6tadGlS
The immediate upshot of all this for Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his players is deciding which of the next three games – Aston Villa, Leicester City, and Liverpool – are his priority. It makes sense to, purely on a practical basis, rotate heavily in the Leicester match on Tuesday evening. Even if the Foxes are still third behind United.
Solskjær doesn’t trust his squad enough to make wholesale changes, evidenced by the chaos against Roma second-half when swapping both full-backs at half-time. In any case, we will see more of Brandon Williams, Alex Telles, Nemanja Matić, Eric Bailly, and Juan Mata – all used in Rome – along with Axel Tuanzebe and Amad Diallo over the course of the next few days.
Losing to Villa would heap unnecessary pressure on the Leicester and Liverpool games in quick succession, so expect a strong starting eleven from Solskjær on Sunday.
Scratched record with this one, this column, but it’s one of the few intriguing squad subplots. Dean Henderson will be welcomed back for Villa away despite David de Gea’s performance in Rome keeping the goals conceded down to only three. Perhaps De Gea will get one last bonus league outing in midweek against Leicester or Liverpool... in exchange for the Europa League final. Solskjær will certainly be umming and ahhing over who to choose for the final on 26 May in Gdansk – regardless of whether De Gea deserves it – and Henderson’s performances over the next week or so will be equally scrutinised.
Harry Maguire will be used in two of the next three matches, according to Solskjær, and may sit out Leicester’s visit to Old Trafford purely due to scheduling and the necessary recovery time required. It would be a blow to the United captain, not only against his old club, but who was also set to play every league minute for United this season, a record his manager seemed keen to oversee.
Bailly is ready to deputise, flare in each hand. The people’s captain.
Scott McTominay’s exclusion on Thursday night points towards the Scottish midfielder being needed for many of the remaining games in May.
McTominay rediscovering some form from earlier this season would be a timely boon.
A mixed performance in Rome, Paul Pogba returned to a central midfield spot with Donny van de Beek toiling on the left wing in his stead. Solskjær may feel light on depth and quality in midfield for the coming week and, with Edinson Cavani fit and flowing, United now have more options on either side of Bruno Fernandes. It doesn’t help Pogba’s momentum to be shifted around but his commitment at the moment to dictate United’s play, with a rejuvenated Fernandes, should see him and his team through.
Marcus Rashford probably wasn’t expecting to play 20 minutes in Rome, but Cavani’s yellow card and Roma’s pressure spooked the United manager into making a change to hold off the Italians.
When Rashford does return to the starting line-up, it will hopefully be from the left where he has found most joy this season. A front three of Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani, and Rashford is a mouth-watering prospect. But we might have to wait until Gdansk for that – if they all make it unscathed.