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Manchester United take on West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford this Saturday, at the end of a difficult week for the club and its new manager, David Moyes. The 4-1 dismissal by City last Sunday was as painful as its proximate cause (midfield weakness) was predictable. In midweek, a 1-0 League Cup win over Liverpool was even more welcome than usual, as the media pressure on Mr. Moyes eased slightly, Jonny Evans got his first minutes of the season, Chris Smalling did well in defence, and we saw the return of Rafael, whose importance to the team was certainly felt in his absence. In the same competition West Brom were less fortunate, losing to Arsenal on penalties after ending 1-1 in 120 minutes. At this early stage of the season, the Baggies are two points behind United in the Premier League table and look a bit more like the team of last year, after losing two of their opening three games at home. Tomorrow probably won’t bear any resemblance to the last time the two clubs met, a memorable 5-5 joyride at the Hawthorns in Fergie’s final game.
As far as a preview goes, there’s little to say beyond the following:
- “United should really try to win this one” – pretty self-explanatory.
- “Steve Clarke is good at football coaching” – this is a mix of truthful statement and politeness.
- “West Brom have a strong midfield and some very good attacking players” – they do, you know. James Morrison, Youssuf Mulumbu, Stephane Sessegnon and Nicolas Anelka are all quite good at football, and the former three would all be described as “good, solid, established Premier League players” by people who watch no football other than the Premier League. Throughout his career, Anelka has proven to be a pesky bastard when playing against Manchester United, so the United defenders would be well advised to kick him repeatedly on everyone’s behalf (I don’t think even the WBA fans like him much).
- “West Brom will also try a bit, but usually they stop playing at around the 60 minute mark when they come to Old Trafford. But hey, you never know!” – watch this space.
Now that we’ve got the difficult part done, here are some points about some Manchester United players who may or may not play tomorrow.
Shinji Kagawa has played almost no league football this season, much to the consternation of several thousand insane human beings (and a few spambots, no doubt) on the internet. While there are very good practical reasons for this – chiefly, a summer in which he amassed utterly ludicrous quantities of air miles with very little opportunity for rest – it also seems that Mr. Moyes doesn’t quite trust his playmaker just yet. After his start in the midweek win, Moyes said he still looked short of match fitness – which he did, but he also did this delightful thing – and it seems unlikely that Shinji’s services will be rendered with much intensity tomorrow afternoon.
As mentioned above, it was great to see the better half of the lovable Brazilian footballing puppy-man twin duo return to the side for the Liverpool game. We all know that fans’ perceptions of a player’s abilities grow exponentially with the length of the player’s absence. But the thing with Rafael’s injury is that Manchester United was an obviously worse football team without him in it, and an obviously better team as soon as he came back into the side. In his absence, our play from the right-back position went from simmering to lukewarm. While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both highly capable defenders, their best work is done in the middle of the pitch – as both showed on Wednesday, with Chris at centre-back and Phil in central midfield – and while both show admirable enthusiasm, neither man possesses either the passing, crossing or running-very-quickly-with-the-ball ability to truly add zest to our attack. Rafael’s most able deputy over this most recent injury layoff was his twin brother Fabio, who played very well against Crystal Palace, and who may feel a bit annoyed not to have been selected more often in the position.
Another factor militating in Rafael’s favour is the following: he makes both Valencia and Nani play better, by offering a constant wide attacking option, thereby allowing both wingers to vary their movement somewhat. Opposition left-wingers are happy to give Jones and Smalling space with which to operate, knowing that their crosses would probably meet the keeper’s clutches or bonk an unwitting fan in the face. This is decidedly not the case when Rafael plays.
That said, I do not know whether Rafael will play in the match tomorrow. I hope he does.
Getting the league season back on track
Something something wounded tiger something something never write Manchester United off something something nice looking run of fixtures something something Moyes is a fighter something something Bouncing Back something something Alan Partridge reference blah dee blah I don’t get paid for this
Somewhat surprisingly, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have started every Premier League game together this season, and played three games in six days last week. Understandably, they looked ragged against City, and among other things, led many to question Mr. Moyes’ selection of them in the Bayer Leverkusen game last Tuesday. As they were rested in midweek, perhaps they will start tomorrow, but I’m hoping that at least one of Jonny Evans or Chris Smalling gets the opportunity to build on good performances against Liverpool. Wednesday aside, Jonny has played almost no football under Moyes. To me it’s a shame, as he’s been coming off two excellent seasons in a row, and at 25 should be being groomed to take over from the ageing legends above him. We’ll see what happens.
Robin and Tom
They’re both in with a chance of playing after picking up injuries within the last ten days. Tom played very well in his short appearance against City, adding a welcome burst of energy and zip to our otherwise lethargic midfield play. There is surely a role for him this season, especially with Fellaini proving not to be the midfield Messiah that absolutely nobody thought he would be. As Fellaini was rested in midweek and Carrick played only thirty minutes, it seems like the first-choice pairing will start tomorrow, with Moyes probably wanting to make a big statement out of tomorrow’s performance and result. Cleverley should be fit enough to make the bench.
Robin may or may not play. I have no idea. But as W.H. Auden never wrote, “Robin does what Robin can/Deeds quite impossible for man” – so just let him be, he’s brilliant.
A man in very fine form. He will probably start. I think he has quite a good scoring record against West Brom – they seem like the kind of team he usually scores against. I think he will score.
United take on West Brom, and will be looking to get their league campaign going again after a testing first five games. Major questions have been asked of Mr. Moyes and of the squad, and, while the manager has tried to answer some of these questions in his rather candid press engagements, the definitive response will be delivered on the pitch. This is the first in a series of winnable league games – all of the next five fixtures will pose a different challenge, but United will be favoured to prevail in each of them. Having gained only seven points from the first five outings, the club will expect a strong run of results both to improve their league position and to relieve the understandable pressure on Mr. Moyes. West Brom have had a middling start to the season and are usually acquiescent guests at Old Trafford, but if complacency sets in, United could quickly find themselves in uncomfortable positions. I expect a tense opening, leading to a one of those shaky but ultimately comfortable and largely forgettable 2-0 wins that United have mastered in recent years.