It was always going to be a crucial Christmas period for Manchester United and they have started well with back-to-back wins, but they need a lot more results like that if they are to challenge for a top four finish. This weekend, they travel to West Bromwich Albion and will be in for a difficult match against the in-form Baggies. There is only one place separating the two teams in the league table and a home win will put the Baggies only one point behind their more illustrious opponents. That shows how far the Midlands club has come under Tony Pulis.
The Baggies extended the contract of Tony Pulis earlier this season and it was a decision that didn’t excite the supporters as they wanted their team to become more entertaining and that seemed unlikely under the Welshman. However, they have been better to watch this season after the additions of Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli, as shown by their total of 23 goals. West Brom have scored more than Saturday’s opponents and only six other Premier League sides have more goals this season. Although they still play a functional style, it is much better to watch as they have genuine flair in attack. The excitement is slowly coming back at the Hawthorns and Pulis deserves a lot of credit for that.
Manchester United remain six points off the Champions League, but they have a run of winnable fixtures and should be able to close the gap considerably if they play to their full potential. Despite their lack of wins, they haven’t tasted defeat since the end of October in the league and have good foundations to build on. They just need to be more clinical in front of goal and the improvement in both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggests that they will be over the coming weeks. It would be foolish to rule United out at this stage and another few wins will put them right in the mix for a top four finish.
In this fixture last season, both sides picked up a win and there were two red cards shown. At the Hawthorns, Juan Mata was sent off for two bookable offences in the first half, which gave West Brom the opportunity to win the game, which they did. Salomon Rondon scored for the Baggies. Meanwhile at Old Trafford, Jesse Lingard and Mata scored the goals for the home side as they prevailed 2-0. During the match, Gareth McAuley was sent off.
- Salomon Rondon is only the second player to score a hat-trick of headers, a feat he completed during the week against Swansea City. The other player to do so was Duncan Ferguson in 1997.
- Manchester United’s victory over Crystal Palace was their first in London in seven matches.
It is important that West Brom show more ambition than they did against Chelsea as they are the home side this weekend and are coming up against a defence that is far from solid. Although they have a good record, the United defence can look nervy and struggles when it is under siege. Neither Marcos Rojo nor Phil Jones are dominant in the air and there is an opportunity for West Brom to cause them problems this weekend. Since signing for the Baggies, Phillips has been the side’s most dangerous attacker as he can cause problems with his directness. This season, he has contributed three goals and five assists, a good return considering West Brom aren’t known for their dynamism in attack. Manchester United have struggled to defend against players that look to run at their back four and Phillips has the ability to cause them a lot of problems this weekend. There is a chance for West Brom to take the three points on Saturday, but for them to do so, they will need Phillips at the top of his game.
The Frenchman has been criticised since moving back to Manchester United, as he hasn’t influenced matches as much as was expected. There was a lot of pressure on him after signing and his initial performances didn’t live up to the hype. However, he has improved hugely in recent weeks, delivering quality performances against Tottenham and Crystal Palace. During the week, he got a goal and an assist, while his overall play was world class. His vision and ability to play perfectly-weighted passes into the attackers makes him a difficult player to defend against, especially as his shooting ability from range is well known. West Brom will try to rough him up on Saturday and it will be interesting to see how the midfielder deals with it. It will be a test for him, but if he wants to be known as one of the best players in the league, he needs to deliver on a weekly basis and he hasn’t shown that yet.
Both Jonny Evans and Saido Berahino are doubts for this weekend, but Pulis will be hoping to have both available, especially Evans as he is the side’s best defender. Boaz Myhill will definitely miss out with an ankle injury.
Eric Bailly is going to miss out after picking up a knee injury during the week. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Chris Smalling should both be available for Boxing Day, but they won’t feature against West Brom. Luke Shaw is a doubt for the away side.
It is going to be a difficult match, as both teams have been playing well in recent weeks. However, I’m going to predict an away win as United are beginning to find their form and I expect them to make significant strides before the end of the year given the teams that they are due to play. The fact that Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both starting to show why they are considered world class players provides United with another dimension in attack, which is too much for most teams to deal with. It won’t be an easy match for them, but I expect them to take the three points nevertheless.