David Moyes has pulled off a remarkable achievement. Manchester United might be out of both domestic cups, but between that and their current league position, Moyes has managed to make every game between now and the end of the season a cup final.
With 48 points left up for grabs in the league, Moyes knows that in order to achieve Champions League qualification, his side have to outperform Liverpool by seven points, and Tottenham and Everton by six (assuming Everton and Liverpool maintain a superior goal difference to United, and Tottenham’s remains worse).
Even with the addition of Juan Mata, there is no guarantee that this can be achieved, although his arrival will presumably make it more likely.
With this in mind, Moyes cannot afford to be complacent in any game. Cardiff’s performances, if not their results, have improved since the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and they have, of course, held United to a score draw already this season.
David de Gea’s almost-mistake-free season finally hit a speed bump against Sunderland. However, given the morale boost he will have no doubt received from this hug with Mata, he will hopefully be back to his best.
Rafael will need a rest at some point, but given that Chris Smalling, playing at the centre of defense, was one of the few players to emerge with any credit from the Capital One Cup exit against Sunderland, Moyes may well wish to keep him in the middle—meaning another 90 minutes at right-back for Rafael.
Jonny Evans is likely to retain his place alongside Smalling, although there remains an outside chance of a rare game in his favoured position for Phil Jones.
The injury situation at left-back is unclear, with Patrice Evra and Alexander Buttner having replaced each other in the last two games. But if there is a choice, Evra will play.
Up against Cardiff’s combative Chilean, Gary Medel, and deprived through injury of the services of Michael Carrick, Moyes has difficult decisions to make in the centre of midfield. There are arguments for most combinations of Jones, Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher.
My guess is Jones and Cleverley, based on Fletcher being more likely to be in need of rest following his exertions against Sunderland.
The forward players are a bit of an unknown at the moment, as Moyes’ selections will be heavily dependent on fitness levels. Wayne Rooney may be fit to feature, and a place in the starting XI would not be a shock.
Adnan Januzaj must surely be in need of some rest given how much football he has played, but will Moyes be able to resist lining up with Mata and the youngster in the same side? That would certainly be the box-office choice.
Whether Mata starts will depend on what Moyes sees in training. Obviously he has not played much first-team football this season, but early word from Moyes, per MUTV (via ESPN.co.uk) certainly seems to indicate United's new No. 8 will get a game.
The dream of seeing Mata, Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa behind Rooney or Robin Van Persie may still be a way off, with Moyes unlikely to gamble on losing out on the defensive cover and physical presence provided by Antonio Valencia on the right.
Whilst it may be difficult for United fans to hear, given the difficulties at left-back, it is not impossible that Ashley Young will be selected to provide cover on the left wing.
Danny Welbeck looks in need of a rest, unsurprisingly given how much of United’s forward play he has been covering in the absence of Rooney and Van Persie. His selection is only likely if Moyes has no other options.
My educated guess for an XI is below. Add yours in the comments!