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We’re fast approaching the time of the year when the Academy kick-start their FA Youth Cup campaign. United’s record in the competition is unparalleled – 14 finals with 10 trophy wins. Having lost in the semi-finals to last year’s winners, Chelsea, with a young squad, expectations will once again be high this year. Burnley, who also reached the semi-finals last year, visit Old Trafford on Friday 7th December.
The beauty of this year’s side is that it is so similar to the team that had a good cup run last season. The majority of these players have already got good experience of playing in stadiums full of fans and on larger pitches. The main differences are that captain, Luke McCullough; left back, Tyler Blackett; and left winger, Gyliano van Velzen, have moved up an age group.
The other difference is league form. Last season United struggled for wins even if they often played well. The FA Youth Cup became the priority and it was in that competition that they excelled with the help of schoolboys Ioannou and Wilson. This time around, in the new league format, United have already qualified from their group and are into the next stage which will commence after Christmas. Southampton may have won the group but United have won most of their games and like the first team, haven’t drawn any. In fact, at the time of writing, United have won five in a row and kept clean sheets in their last three of their last four games.
Paul McGuinness has some tough decisions to make when picking his side. Whilst in the league the starting team is rotated to ensure all players can get enough playing time, the cup will see Paul pick his strongest side.
In goal, it’s a straight shoot-out between Gollini and Sutherland. The Italian has started the majority of games and done well – noticeably improving on his handling and confidence coming for crosses. Sutherland, whilst the shorter of the two, has played at U21 level for United and in September, he represented England at U19 level.
The sole part of the team that should pick itself is the defence. Donald Love has firmly made right back his own whilst Rowley, despite being unchallenged for the left back spot, has done equally well. Liam Grimshaw, the captain, has come into his own having moved from right back last year to centre back this season. His performances have been superb and he’s been an ever present in the team. The ideal player to partner him would be Nicholas Ioannou, the young centre back who performed so well as a schoolboy last season. Nick has missed most of the season through injury though and only recently game back in an U16 game. He started last weekend against Southampton so maybe he’ll be ready for this one. Should he not be fit enough for such an important game, it may instead by Dalley who plays there – signed from Cardiff last year he’s never quite had a run of games but has played his part in the recent clean sheets.
The front six is anyone’s guess. There’s an abundance of attacking talent at United at U18 level right now and trying to fit them all into the same team is a challenge that I’m pleased Paul has to make and not me! His hand to some extent may be forced – neither Rothwell nor Pereira have featured much recently, suggesting they’re injured. Rothwell was a sub in the last game and played the final twenty minutes of the match but one suspects the bench is the best he can hope for. If they are both fit enough though, it’s anyone’s guess how they, as well as Pearson, Barmby, Daehli, Januzaj and Wilson start.
Typically, United have played a 4-2-3-1 system (often shown on graphics as a 4-4-1-1). Pearson and someone, often Weir, sometimes Rudge or Rothwell when fit play in the middle. Weir’s been something of an unsung hero so far – like Pearson he’s a box-to-box player and has really played his part in United’s good form. Arguably, Pearson’s been United’s best player so far – hard working, tough, calm, confident and a really reliable player. Having had some really bad luck with illnesses, he’s done so well to come back looking so fit.
Up front, it’s usually one of Wilson or Byrne. The Irishman, Byrne, may be preferred because he’s the older of the two and he’s started to fill out physically. James Wilson is the bigger danger though. He’s the top scorer for the side with 10 goals in 9 games and despite looking like he could blow over, he’s got tremendous strength, balance, pace and composure. If Paul picks a side without sentiment attached, it should be James Wilson starting.
Behind the striker and in no fixed position, take your pick from Daehli, Januzaj, Pereira and Barmby. Trying to fit all of them into the same side looks a very tricky task – none of them deserve not to start. Daehli’s had an outstanding season and certain to start; Januzaj has only just been reintroduced to the U18s having played for the U21s this season but should also start. It’s then one of Periera and Barmby. Pereira may be injured as he’s not featured lately but he’s done well in his first season with the U18s. Barmby’s oddly not played much football this season and like Januzaj, has only recently played for the U18s with the Youth Cup in mind. Kenji Gorre may feel hard done by not to get a look in – he’s almost always positively contributed when he’s come on as a substitute but those ahead of him are just very strong.
As is said every year, if you can, go to Old Trafford and watch this game. The U18s have been the most exciting of United’s sides to watch this season and played some excellent football. Whilst keen not to heap pressure and hype upon them, this is a strong group of players who’ve already got experience in this competition – another good cup run will hopefully be on the cards.