Manchester United kick off their Premier League season against Leicester City on Friday evening, with the hopes of getting off to a good start in a bid to challenge Manchester City for the title.
After finishing second last season, a long way behind their rivals who had more or less sewn up the title by the turn of the year, United need to raise their game this campaign. A good performance against Leicester would be a great place to start.
One positive is that their best outfield player, Paul Pogba, returns to Manchester as a world champion. The renewed confidence and swagger this will give the Frenchman should work in United’s favour over the course of the season, but with his holiday starting later than his teammates’, it’s unlikely he will feature in the opening game.
Rumours linking him with a move to Barcelona have taken the wind out of the sails of United fans. However, it’s hard to imagine the club will allow a player of his talent to leave, particularly with no time remaining in the transfer window to replace him.
A new look midfield in the opening match
A midfield Jose Mourinho may employ on Friday in Pogba’s absence could be the Brazilian duo of Fred and Andreas Pereira. The former joined the club in the summer but, despite being selected in the squad, he missed out on the World Cup after failing to recover from injury in time. He has, however, played a part in United’s pre-season games.
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The latter has spent the past two years out on loan in La Liga and has a point to prove to the manager who disagreed with his decision to join Valencia last season. Pereira played more football than anyone in the squad during the team’s tour of the USA so it appears Mourinho likes what he sees.
Depending on the formation, that could leave a third spot available in midfield. Nemanja Matic is still injured, leaving the options of Ander Herrera, who has been more a less a constant during the pre-season, as well as Mourinho’s favourites, Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay.
The Belgian agreed a new contract with the club over the summer while McTominay was named the manager’s player of the year for last season. There’s no question the fans would like to see a Brazilian shaped change of personnel starting against Leicester though.
The Manchester United back four requires changes
Defensively, supporters may well be greeted with a more familiar back four, much to the disappointment of many. With the window still open, there’s still time to make a move for Toby Alderweireld or Harry Maguire, but chances are Mourinho will continue to see something in Chris Smalling and Phil Jones that supporters can’t.
Eric Bailly is the best defender at the club but missed much of the closing months of the season, despite recovering from the injury that saw him sit a few months out. The manager claimed it was because he wanted to give his defenders the best chance possible of going to the World Cup and with Bailly’s country, the Ivory Coast, not qualifying, he fell down in pecking order. Supporters will be hoping there’s nothing more to it though and that Bailly will return to the starting XI for the campaign ahead.
Luke Shaw and Mourinho have apparently made friends, with the left-back insisting again he will work hard this season to get in the team. He may well get the nod over Ashley Young. On the opposite side, Antonio Valencia is injured, as is new recruit Diogo Dalot, meaning United may well have to start with Matteo Darmian at right-back, a player who has been surplus to requirements and has asked for a transfer. It’s hardly ideal.
Can Sanchez improve on last season?
In the attack, Romelu Lukaku, on the back of a personally successful World Cup, will lead the line with Alexis Sanchez in support. Jesse Lingard was a preferred option last season but having not taken part in the pre-season, it looks like Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata will be ahead of him in the pecking order.
Sanchez only showed glimpses of what he was capable of in a United shirt after joining the club in January. He played a vital role in United’s comeback against City at the Etihad, having a hand in all three goals, as well as scoring the goal against Tottenham Hotspur to put United in the FA Cup final, but he hardly reached the heights you’d expect of a player with his quality. Mourinho has insisted for months that, with the benefit of time, Sanchez will make more of an impression this season and he will be looking to prove that against Leicester.
Rashford was named as United’s new no.10 last week, wearing the shirt that once belonged to club legends like Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Having scored 13 goals in all competitions last season, his highest tally to date, he will be hoping to improve further in the season ahead and get off the mark as soon as possible.
He will have to beat Kasper Schmeichel to do this though, who deserved better from the World Cup than his Danish teammates were able to give him. He will likely prove to be vitally important to Leicester on Friday, and the season ahead, especially after losing one of their best players, Riyad Mahrez, to City.
While that will give City an advantage in the long run, it certainly helps United on Friday. Instead, the home side will have to keep his replacement at bay; Rachid Ghezzal, who signed from Monaco this week.
Jonny Evans is another new signing who will likely make his debut, partnered with Maguire, and returning to the club he has supported all his life, and played at for most of it. He will receive a hero’s welcome from the Old Trafford crowd but they will be hoping he doesn’t come with too much of a point to prove.
Mourinho has bemoaned how little time he’s had with his players ahead of the first game of the season and having at least a day less than rival teams hasn’t gone down well with him either. With several United players reaching the latter stages of the World Cup, compared to just two at Leicester (Maguire and Jamie Vardy), the manager sees this as a further disadvantage.
The truth is, without any disrespect intended to Leicester, if Mourinho can’t inspire the players he has available to him to victory over last season’s ninth best team at home, he has bigger problems than he thought.
On the back of what has been a fairly underwhelming pre-season, with the club not signing the players Mourinho asked for and the manager regularly voicing his general dissatisfaction, United cannot afford anything but a good start which would allow for some positivity to return.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Leicester City.