Following Manchester United’s chastening defeat against Chelsea at the weekend, David Moyes needs his team to bounce back quickly. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg defeat at the Stadium of Light, the imperative will be on the Reds to attack.
David de Gea will keep his place in goal.
At right-back, Rafael da Silva is most likely to get the nod. If Moyes had richer options at right-back, he may have considered resting (or dropping) Rafael as punishment for his indiscipline against Chelsea.
At significant fault for Chelsea’s second, Rafael appeared to switch off and drifted back towards the right when maintaining his position may have prevented the goal. He should also have been sent off for a lunging two-footed challenge in the immediate aftermath of Nemanja Vidic’s dismissal.
However, given Chris Smalling’s limited contributions to attacking play down the right, Rafael may be un-droppable.
Patrice Evra is a doubt at left-back, having hobbled off against Chelsea, meaning a possible run out for Alex Buttner. Whilst this is far from ideal, given Buttner’s defensive limitations, he does offer a reasonably significant attacking threat.
Moyes has big decisions to make at centre-back. None of United’s defenders covered themselves in glory at the weekend. With Vidic suspended and Rio Ferdinand probably relegated to fifth choice, Moyes will most likely select two from Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans.
Given Jones’ recent return from injury and the 90 minutes he played on Sunday, Evans and Smalling would be my tip to get the nod.
Central midfield offers perhaps less of a dilemma. United are still desperately short of quality in the middle of the park, but Darren Fletcher will probably be back and hopefully able to offer support to the forwards.
His performance in the second half against Swansea City was crucial to United turning that game around and whilst his absence from the Chelsea game was understandable, it also highlighted how much difference he makes when he does play.
Michael Carrick remains in relatively abject form but will probably play alongside Fletcher. He offers a range of passing that the rest of United’s midfield lack, although he really is having a poor season.
United’s league position is such that every point is absolutely crucial if they are to stand any chance of fourth place. Moyes may still be talking about the title, but such talk is absolute nonsense at this point.
If United win every league game between now and the end of the season they will finish the season on 85 points, which would only have been enough to win the title two out of the past five years. United will not win every league game between now and the end of the season. It remains an outside bet that we will persuade both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to join us before January 31.
Adnan Januzaj’s inclusion would be beyond doubt if he was two years older. However, the young man who might be United’s most potent creative force is at risk of burnout.
With fourth place a more realistic target, it is clear that Januzaj will not play in as many games as we would like him to be able to, because he will need rest.
Given that this is a one-off game and is a non-negotiable must-win, this may be the last of a few starts in a row for the boy who can do anything.
I suspect that Shinji Kagawa will return to the starting line-up, preferred over Ashley Young given that there is less need for defensive solidity.
He and Danny Welbeck both starting will depend on Wayne Rooney’s fitness, assuming Moyes rests Antonio Valencia and leaves Young on the bench. Valencia has played a lot of football in the past few weeks, and he would probably benefit from some time to recuperate.
Given his long absence, if Rooney is available, he may start from the bench. However, the raised stakes in this game may force Moyes to gamble on his inclusion from the start.
My predicted 11 is below—have your say in the comments!