This weekend sees the team with the longest unbeaten run in the Premier League visit the team with the current longest winless streak in the league. Manchester United – 17 games unbeaten – visit the Riverside stadium for their match against Middlesbrough, who have not won since last 10 games. The last time these two sides played each other, Aitor Karanka was meeting his ex-boss. This time, there is no such reunion as Middlesbrough sacked Karanka on Thursday and Steve Agnew is their caretaker manager for the game on Sunday.
One of the main reasons for Karanka’s tenure being cut short is his team’s dubious joint record across top six tiers of English football – of scoring only 19 goals so far in the season. As a result, Middlesbrough have secured the least number of wins this season (only 4) and they find themselves in the 19th position in the league table. Even Burnley, who have lost two more games than Boro are quite out of the relegation fight as along with 15 losses, they have also managed to win nine matches, drawing only four. But Middlesbrough has the joint highest number of in the league, currently ten. With Karanka gone, Boro would be hoping to get some luck and a win under their belt as they are not likely to meet such a fatigued Manchester United in near future. Winning this match could give the team confidence in the upcoming matches against relegation rivals and then the extremely tough run-in with matches against Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Jose Mourinho loves to complain. The whole world knows that. But sometimes you feel that the man is justified in his complaining. His latest comments concern the fixture pileup that Manchester United is going through over the last one and half months. “It’s more difficult. We played 11 matches in the last six weeks and it’s going to get worse,” Mourinho said. Indeed, it is going to get worse. In the month of April, United are scheduled to play eight matches (not including the yet to be rescheduled games against City and Saints) in Premier League and Europa League competitions. If it were not for the injuries to his key men, Mourinho may not mind the pileup so much, as United have had a good run in the league and are quietly progressing towards a Europa League final that can put them in next year’s Champions League. But if United can put their fatigue at the back of their minds and grab all three points at Riverside, they might keep the top-four route to Champions League also open.
For Middlesbrough, Daniel Ayala, Calum Chambers, and George Friend continue to remain out of action but Bernardo Espinosa and Rudy Gestede might be available after injuries. Karanka’s exit might also pave the way back in for Stewart Downing, who was being ignored by Karanka due to a training ground bust up. These are likely to be the only changes on Sunday for Boro.
One of the reasons for Mourinho to rant against fixture pileup is that ill-discipline and injuries have severely depleted his first choice team. Pogba and Daley Blind both are likely to be out of the visit to Riverside after injuries suffered against Rostov on Thursday night. Herrera is serving the ban for his red card against Chelsea in FA Cup and Ibrahimovic is also suspended, sitting out the second of his three-match ban. These absences might mean that Carrick, Fellaini and Martial will start on Sunday.
- The Red Devils have scored in each of their last 14 away league games against Middlesbrough; their longest active streak against a single opponent.
- Wayne Rooney has been directly involved in six goals in his last five Premier League games against Middlesbrough (two goals, four assists).
- This game will see the team who averages the fewest shots on target (Middlesbrough – 2.4 per game) face the team who attempts the most per game (Manchester United – 6.3 per game). B
- Boro are winless in 10 league games since Christmas, failing to score in seven of them. A draw or defeat on Saturday would ensure they equal the longest run without victory in the Premier League this season, set by Swansea. Boro have also scored only two league goals since the turn of the year.
Marcus Rashford might get his eleventh league start on Sunday as Zlatan Ibrahimovic is out due to suspension and the 19-year old is likely to be United’s key goal threat. So far, he has scored only 3 goals in 21 appearances, but time and again Rashford has shown that he is capable of scoring really good goals. Due to Ibrahimovic’s presence, Rashford has not got too many minutes under the belt – only 1065 minutes in 21 appearances so far, i.e. only 50 minutes per appearance. But he has used that limited time to attack the opposition defenses. He puts in 2.2 shots per 90 minutes, of which 1.9 are from within the penalty box. As a result, he has 38% accuracy in terms of shots on target and will be aiming to increase his tally against Boro.
Right now, Middlesbrough need only one things – goals. For them to materialize, Boro’s primary forward has to make his presence count on Sunday. Negredo has scored six goals and assisted four so far in the league. He generally takes 1.8 shots per 90 minutes, of which 33% are on target and 1.4 are from within the box. Boro’s game is likely to be dependent on long balls and Negredo’s 5.3 aerial headers won per 90 minutes should come in handy. All in all, Middlesbrough are overdue on goals this year, and if they decide to right the situation against United, Negredo will be their primary goal outlet.
These two teams are loving stalemates this season, with both having eked out 10 draws each. On Sunday, a fatigued and depleted side chasing a top four spot will be up against a side whose chances of relegation are increasing with each scoreless game week. However, they are only likely to add to their draw numbers this weekend as without their first-choice midfield and forward, not to mention their fatigue, United are likely to be subdued going forward. On the other hand, Middlesbrough simply do not possess the quality to breach a Mourinho team’s defense, no matter how fatigued they are.