The festive season is a time for meeting friends and family and for footballers – former team mates, bosses and rivals. Many such reunions happened during game week 18, with David Moyes visiting Old Trafford again and Joe Allen and Glen Johnson were back at Anfield for Stoke City. The reunion season continues in game week 19 as Middlesbrough visit Manchester United on New Year’s eve. Aitor Karanka will lead his side to Old Trafford, where his former boss Jose Mourinho and his in-form team await. Victor Valdes takes the field against the club that gave him a total of two league appearances and Alvaro Negredo goes back to the city of Manchester, where he appeared in a couple of derby victories for Manchester City, 3 years back.
Despite the festive season, Jose Mourinho and his team will not be in very kind spirits. He has indeed mentioned that in his pre-match comments. After a dismal October and a not too kind November, during which United won only one league match – against Swansea and dropped far too many points, they have now strung together four league victories. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who during those two months seemed lost, has now scored eight and assisted two in the last seven games. Henrik Mkhitaryan, who seemed out of favour, has started playing pivotal roles in United’s game plan. Things are looking up at Old Trafford.
Things are not as rosy for Karanka’s side as they have lost three out of their last four games but those losses were against Southampton (away), Liverpool (home), and Burnley (away). In these four games, they have only scored three goals – all in their victory against Swansea. So Karanka’s concerns remain around his side’s goal scoring abilities. 16 goals in 18 matches is a goal return suited to the relegation zone. Only Sunderland, Swansea, Crystal Palace and Hull City’s poorer runs have ensured that Middlesbrough are 4 points clear of the relegation zone.
- Manchester United kept a clean sheet in their final league games of 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
- Middlesbrough have won only one of their last 22 away Premier League games, failing to score in 15 of them
- United are unbeaten in last seven Premier League matches against Boro (W4, D3), last losing to them in October 2005
- Wayne Rooney likes playing against Boro. He has scored twice and assisted three goals in last four Premier League matches against them. However, he is unlikely to feature on Saturday.
It seemed Henrik Mkhitaryan was out of favour with Jose Mourinho in the beginning of the season. However, as he has shown in his last two appearances, his presence lends flexibility, verve, and a definite attacking edge to the United attack. Although he has played only 327 minutes in 8 appearances for the Red Devils in the league, it is likely that he will start the game on Saturday. At 0.6 goals and 3.3 shot assists per 90 minutes, his attacking stats are Zlatanesque. His goal against Sunderland showed that he has similar skill levels as well. If the Boro defence gets too occupied with the big forward, the Armenian advanced midfielder can definitely make them pay.
A team that scores only 0.9 goals per game and that has not scored in three of their last four matches, needs their striker to take the responsibility to score. Alvaro Negredo, with five of Boro’s 16 goals, is the player on which Karanka will be pinning his hopes as he seems to have the necessary attributes to trouble United’s defence. If he gets good service, he has shown earlier in the first half that he can be dangerous. Boro will be hoping that he indeed proves so, as there are very few other options from which they can expect goals.
Jose Mourinho could have had a pick of his entire squad had minor injuries not made Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw, and Eric Bailly most likely unavailable. This could mean that United’s defence stays unchanged, although there could be changes in the midfield and the attack. Mkhitaryan is very likely to start given his cameo against Sunderland. On the other hand, it is possible that Martial is favoured in place of Lingard owing to the fixture congestion.
For Middlesbrough, right-back Antonio Barragan is suspended after receiving his fifth yellow card against Burnley. Either former United player Fabio da Silva or Emilio Nsue are likely to replace Barragan at Old Trafford. Viktor Fischer remains in doubt due to his knee injury, which kept him out against Burnley. Other than these couple of absentees, Karanka should have his entire squad to pick from.
Manchester United are in great form and their attack seems very likely to score a few more in the last match of the year. Defensively too, although not exceptional, their numbers are pretty good. On the other hand, Boro are really shy in front of the goal and will need an exceptional effort from Negredo, if they want to go back with at least a point. It should be another easy victory for Manchester United.
Man United 2 – 0 Middlesbrough