Thursday night sees a long-awaited Manchester derby take place at the Etihad Stadium, after a two-month delay, following rescheduling of the original fixture. The crucial game, which could not be played in February because of Manchester United’s League Cup exploits, may prove pivotal in the race for the top-four.
Manchester City currently reside in 4th, just a single point, and place, above their prestigious rivals. Both sides will have been buoyed by Liverpool’s defeat to Crystal Palace, which has left them within three points of Jurgen Klopp’s team, having played two games less.
Now, the Premier League is not imperative to Unite, especially if they can see off Celta Vigo before continuing to, and triumphing in, the Europa League final. After all, just a few weeks ago that seemed by far the most likely route to qualification for the Red Devils, who are now able to decide their own fate on the domestic stage.
A serious obstacle Jose Mourinho faces in both competitions is his growing injury list, most recently joined by top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo and Paul Pogba, with the latter limping off in the closing stages against Burnley.
Both Rojo and Ibrahimovic were victims of last week’s Europa League tie, suffering cruciate knee-ligament injuries that will force them to miss the remainder of the season.
With Chris Smalling and Phil Jones both still sidelined, Rojo’s absence leaves Mourinho with just two fit centre-backs for the trip across town, Eric Bailly and Daley Blind. The former was down injured at the end of Sunday’s game but is expected to play.
Juan Mata is also unavailable, having not featured since last month’s victory over Middlesbrough.
One positive note for United has been the return of Wayne Rooney, who played 90 minutes and scored in Sunday’s win, after overcoming an ankle problem. The club’s all-time top-scorer may not have been the first name on the team-sheet this season but could be crucial in the absence of their talismanic Swede.
Mourinho appears to have rotated well considering the injuries and swamped fixture list, with certain changes made at the weekend providing a hint as to who will play on Thursday.
The back five almost picks itself, with left-back the only real uncertainty. Antonio Valencia was rested at the weekend and looks certain to return at right-back, having played almost every game when available this season.
Again, there is little room for rotation in midfield and Marouane Fellaini should start as Mourinho favours him to help disrupt sides in these types of matches. Ander Herrera has been one of United’s stand-out performers this campaign and should pair up with Michael Carrick, with Paul Pogba ruled out through injury.
Marcus Rashford gets the nod upfront, having proven against Chelsea and in Europe that he can be the difference when United need him most. Rooney will retain his place after a positive return and Henrik Mkhitaryan may complete the XI after been given an 80-minute rest on Sunday.
Despite the injuries, United have remained unbeaten for an impressive 23 games, and Mourinho is adept at setting his side up to not lose. On paper, at least, the potential line-up looks capable of continuing the run and putting themselves one step closer to a return to Europe’s top table in the process.
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