Sir Alex Ferguson has plenty to think about as Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Real Madrid gets ever nearer.
An injury to Phil Jones—who was excellent in the first leg in the Spanish capital, a 1-1 draw—creates an opening in the centre of midfield, and on Saturday Shinji Kagawa made a claim for a spot in the starting XI with a hat-trick performance against Norwich.
No doubt the Manchester United manager will spend the next few days mulling his options. There are a handful of scenarios available to him and several players who have found their form during United’s recent purple patch. Kagawa is one of them. But will he start against Madrid?
In all likelihood, yes.
Ferguson tends to be fiercely loyal to the teams that perform for him, and as Kagawa was part of the squad that earned the draw at the Bernabeu he was always more likely to be included than omitted on Tuesday, anyway.
Of course, Ferguson has also been known to be loyal to a fault, as was demonstrated with his selection for the 2011 Champions League final. While an entirely different approach might have been warranted against Wembley rivals Barcelona, he kept the faith with the team that had got him that far and was decisively beaten.
He’ll be more intentional with his selections this time around, but Kagawa is still in line for a place in the first XI.
Part of this is down to Jones’ likely absence. The 21-year-old did a terrific marking job against Cristiano Ronaldo in the Spanish capital but went down with an ankle injury during United’s 2-1 win over Reading in the FA Cup the following weekend.
If he were to miss out, and Kagawa not included either, Ferguson would suddenly have two central midfield slots to fill, and he wouldn’t be comfortable giving them to two of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley and Anderson against an opponent of Madrid’s quality.
So it’s safe to say Kagawa will get one of those two spots.
Of course, Ferguson could end up taking an entirely different tact on Tuesday, parting with the 4-2-3-1 that has served him well this season and deploying a 4-3-2-1 or 4-3-3 formation. We saw hints of this against Norwich at Old Trafford, where Michael Carrick, Anderson and Kagawa formed a midfield trio behind Antonio Valencia, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, who functioned as a three-pronged attack.
Valencia, in particular, could be in Ferguson’s plans for Madrid if he feels the Ecuador winger would be able to stick with Cristiano Ronaldo up and down that flank.
Most of the likely scenarios for the Champions League Round of 16 second-leg—barring a sudden Jones return—include Kagawa. But there’s a final factor to consider as well.
Neither United nor Madrid are likely to keep a clean sheet on Tuesday, and Ferguson has admitted as much. And in a match in which they’ll be compelled to score, United will need its form finisher who, after Saturday’s showing, just happens to be Kagawa.
The Japanese playmaker is showing his quality at an important juncture of the season.