After the dour Manchester derby on Thursday night, both the Manchester clubs face relegation threatened clubs on Sunday. Just like City and United, Middlesbrough and Swansea are in two consecutive positions in the table but at the other end of the table – 19th and 18th. While City go to Riverside stadium on Sunday afternoon, Manchester United host the Swans at noon on Sunday and the fixture congestion that Mourinho has complained about the whole season is now starting to get real and show its effects on his squad.
After the derby, Mourinho voiced his feeling that the fixture congestion is unfair for his side, who have played 18 matches more than Liverpool, who he sees as the primary rival for a top four position. On one side, the fixtures do not seem end – his side is yet to play eight more matches in about a month’s time (assuming progress to Europa League final), on the other the list of absentees from his team keeps getting longer. While he joked about playing himself against Swansea as a center back, he may be forced to do something less drastic but quite unlike him, if his players pick up any more injuries.
Manchester United must be in a dilemma. Theoretically, to get Champions League football next season, they can ease off in the Premier League and just focus on three matches – the two semi-final legs against Celta Vigo and then the final. Seems easy, but it is tricky. If they ease off in the league, like Celta have done in La Liga, and then are unable to win either the semi-final or the final, they will end up with another Europa campaign or perhaps no Europe. But in the Premier League, they can ensure fourth position by winning their remaining matches (five). Mourinho would have us believe that he is focusing on winning the Europa League, but his post-match comments on Thursday suggest that he has not given up on top four either.
United’s opponents Swansea do not have any such lofty dilemmas. They have a clear goal – of securing continuity in the Premier League. Two points below seventeenth placed Hull City, a win at Old Trafford can lift Swans out of the relegation zone if Hull lose or even draw their match. Swansea ended a bad run of results last weekend by securing a win against Stoke City. But a win against the Potters, who are quite assured of safety and a win against a Mourinho-led Manchester United, who are gunning for top four are very different. Paul Clement conceded as much as he said, “…You always hope when you play a big team at their stadium that they have a slightly off-day and you have a chance.”
The injury woes at Manchester United were compounded by Marouane Fellaini’s straight red card in the derby for headbutting Sergio Aguero. As if that was not enough, defender Tim Fosu-Mensah also injured himself in the latter stages of the game. He joins Paul Pogba (muscle), Juan Mata (groin), Chris Smalling (knee), and Phil Jones (foot) on the treatment table. Zlatan and Marcus Rojo are out for the season now with knee injuries. To replace Fellaini in the midfield, Rooney might get a start on Sunday. Similarly, if United decide to rest their main defenders for Europa League, then youngster Axel Tuanzebe might start on Sunday.
Swansea can expect to welcome Jack Cork and Martin Olsson back in the side after their respective ankle and hamstring injuries. However, Wayne Routledge is ruled out after having a hernia operation earlier this week. Leon Britton made his first appearance after four months in the last match will expect to start on Sunday as well.
- Manchester United have won their last two league meetings with Swansea, who had won the previous three in a row.
- No ground has staged more draws in the Premier League this season than the nine at Old Trafford. United have only once drawn more often at home in a campaign: 11 times in 1980-81.
- The Swans have picked up just seven points from their last 48 available on the road in the Premier League and have failed to score in each of their last three away games.
- Paul Clement has won six of his 15 Premier League games in charge of the Swans, giving him the best win ratio of any manager for the Welsh side in the competition (40%).
Ten days back Mourinho had criticized Anthony Martial saying, “…he needs to give me things that I like.” That was after his side had drawn 1-1 against Anderlecht in Belgium. However, since then Zlatan has been sidelined with injury and Martial has grabbed the chance with both hands. The Frenchman grabbed a goal and an assist against Burnley last Sunday, before putting in a tireless effort in the derby on Thursday. Ideally Mourinho would want to rest both Rashford and Martial on Sunday in preparation for next Thursday’s Europa League semifinal. But that may not be possible and Martial, who has only started 14 games this season thus far, is likely to start. His manager would like another Burnley-like performance from him and Martial would be itching to prove a point to him.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is by far the best player in the Swansea side. He has contributed to more than half of the goals (20/39) that Swans have scored, having scored eight and assisted twelve. While Fernando Llorente might be considered a bigger threat given his 12 goals and his aerial prowess, but it would need Sigurdsson’s energy and intelligent play to get the Spaniard anywhere close to a shooting position. The Iceland international would need to play one of his better games of the season if Swansea are to salvage even a point at Old Trafford.
The encounter on Sunday at lunch time is going to be a fascinating one. Both the teams have everything to fight for. But one of them is severely constrained by a fixture list that refuses to ease and an injury crisis that will force the manager’s hand. The other team meanwhile is constrained by lack of quality in the attack. Almost 75% of Swansea’s goals have come through contributions of Llorente or Sigurdsson. This lack of attacking quality will bite the Swans as far greater attacks have tried to breach the Manchester United defense and failed. They may be tired and bruised but Manchester United should have enough in the tank to win this game and stake a firmer claim for a top four spot.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Swansea