United chasing Champions League spot with a win over WBA

Jesse Lingard bends one in against WBA earlier in the season when United ran out 2-0 winners

With both Manchester City and West Ham picking up three points yesterday, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United must ensure they keep up with the chasing pack in order to qualify for the Champions League. This feat would be unthinkable a few weeks ago, when United lost at home 1-0 to Southampton – but have picked up crucial wins against Watford and the 3-2 victory over Arsenal last weekend. This of course coincided with all of the top four dropping points in the last two weeks – so United do have a chance of qualifying for the Champions League, outside of winning the Europa League.

Today’s opponents will look to their form against United last season, picking up four points in the 2-2 draw at The Hawthorns and the 1-0 victory over United at Old Trafford. However, United will look to the 2-0 victory over The Baggies earlier in the season, when Jesse Lingard scored a superb second. Although the football hasn’t been vintage, van Gaal has done a good job in brining youngster through to the first team – although there is of course a suggestion he was forced to play his hand with the amount of injuries United have suffered – and surely Marcus Rashford will continue up front to see if he can add to his two goals Premier League tally so far.

United last picked up all three points at WBA in March 2014 under David Moyes. The Scot was sacked just over a month later, but the 3-0 win was one of the highlights of his short lived managerial stint. The home side are undefeated in the Premier League since February 6th and will be looking to build on the victory over Crystal Palace and the 2-2 draw with league leaders Leicester City.

Today, we are joined by Warren Stephens who blogs over at Express and Star. We discussed progress under Tony Pulis, Chris Brunt’s injury and how well Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher have done this season. You can follow Stephen on Twitter here – @warren_stephens.

1) How would you sum up the season so far and are you happy with Tony Pulis?

Pragmatic. He came in with a simple brief: keep the club in the Premier League. He achieved that last season and this with some to spare and with the riches at stake next year it’s difficult to complain, but it’s not always been pretty.

There have been some purposeful performances – points taken from Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton etc – but also some shambolic displays against weaker sides where, excruciatingly, we’ve been unwilling or unable to venture into the opponents half.

There was a spate of games recently where we didn’t register a single shot on target and we really struggled against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup before being put out of our misery at Reading. The knives were out for him after that, but a couple of much-improved performances seem to have settled things down again.

It’ll be an interesting few months ahead but generally, most Albion supporters grew up used to seeing attractive football and won’t afford Pulis’s style of football the patience or understanding that other supporters might. Perhaps that will resonate with a few United fans post-Ferguson.

2) How have Darren Fletcher and Jonny Evans done for you this season?

Excellent. Jonny Evans has been our player of the season so far, he’s brought an air of class and nonchalance to the back four. His passing has really impressed me and he’s even dropped in at left-back and into the midfield on occasion. Given United’s defensive problems, I’m amazed you were so willing to let him leave.

Fletcher’s our captain and by all accounts a great leader in the dressing room. His energy in midfield is critical to the way we play and he’s barely missed a game.

3) How big a loss is Chris Brunt for you and how well has he played this season?

Brunt’s been one of the victims of Tony Pulis’s ‘square pegs in round holes’ strategy and has operated at left back for the majority season which obviously diminishes his creative influence further up the pitch. He’s been steady and dependable and it’s a great shame that he won’t get to represent Northern Ireland in the summer after years of international service.

Most people will have read about the coin-throwing incident at Reading a few weeks ago. The supporters have rallied around him since, organising a charity-collection and displaying a banner of him at the following game.

4) Are you a fan of James McLean? What do the majority of WBA fans think of him?

I’m a fan of his workrate – I’ve never seen a winger work so hard – but I guess you might be alluding to his wider character! He divides opinion, there are a lot of supporters – particularly patriots and ex-servicemen and women – who may outwardly question some of his decision-making. But I think Albion supporters are broadly quite a non-judgemental bunch – we were the first prominent team to have multiple black players in the 1970’s and are generally willing to give people a chance as long as they’re giving something to the football club.

I’m quite happy for players to have a bit of personality and opinion – isn’t that a freedom that many of our forefathers fought for? I would, however, question his claim that he’s a ‘peaceful guy’, he can be quite abrasive and antagonistic and that sometimes upsets opponents – it’s difficult to recall the last set of opposing fans that didn’t boo him!

5) Is there any way back for Saido Berahino or will he leave in the summer? On his day – just how good a striker is he?

He’s potentially very good, he was exceptional against Crystal Palace recently but has struggled with form and fitness on the back of his outburst in the summer. He’s scored around 36 goals in 65 starts for us, although there have been several more appearances from the bench. You have to consider that for the majority of that time, he’s been playing in a team that doesn’t create many chances.

His main attribute is his finishing and that demands service in and around the opposition penalty area which he doesn’t always get with us and he has suffered from; his general hold and link-up play is improving with time. He has some character flaws and it will be difficult for him to ever become a cult hero with our fans – I think there’s a general acceptance that it would be mutually beneficial if he plays, scores goals and earns us some money in the summer. If he doesn’t then we’ll happily keep him.

The rhetoric from the club would imply that he will be sold, the only questions being who to and how much for.

6) What have you made of Manchester United this season? Can the club qualify for the Champions League?

From the outside, United have seemed patchy and inhibited; almost as though there is something missing. Clearly, you’ve suffered a number of injuries but, equally, this season has been an opportunity for any team harbouring aspirations of winning trophies.

I think you can qualify for the Champions League but I wouldn’t put money on it. You would imagine City threading a run together at some stage and it’s difficult to imagine Arsenal – for all their woes –dropping down to 5th or 6th. I guess that leaves Spurs and Leicester, who are quite a way ahead.

7) Marcus Rashford has had an unbelievable start to his career. Can you remember any other youngster having that type of impact?

There was one lad but I’m not sure I remember his name – Rooney or something like that, I wonder where he’s plying his trade these days? Joking aside, he’s had a great start, but didn’t Federico Macheda? I hope for England’s sake that he’s the real deal (just not on Sunday) but hopefully the press allow him to develop and don’t burden him with unrealistic expectation.

8) Will Louis Van Gaal remain in charge next season?

I suspect not and it wouldn’t surprise me if United ‘allow’ him to walk away of his own accord in the summer and retain his dignity as oppose to being pushed sooner. Equally, it might depend on who is available to come in. Mourinho is the obvious choice, but if Charlton and Fergie have reservations then who else? In the absence of a big-hitting replacement, maybe he’ll get another year. You have to wonder if United will trust him with another transfer war chest if you know he’s in his last 12 months.

9) What do you make of plans for a European breakaway?

I’ll believe it when I see it but I guess it’s got the potential to destroy English football as we know it.

That said, with the exception of this season the Premier League had become excruciatingly tedious because of the wealth distortion within it and perhaps the absence of the top sides might increase the chances of it becoming more competitive.

10) What is your all-time WBA dream team?

WBA all time dream team

In my lifetime? Russell Hoult, Darren Moore, Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley, Neil Clement, Jason Koumas, Youssouf Mulumbu, Derek McInnes, Peter Odemwingie, Kevin Phillips, Super Bob Taylor. Not all selected on the basis of technical ability and an unbalanced XI that wouldn’t work in reality!

If you were to ask any Albion supporter over 35, who saw us when we were good, you’d find the names Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Jeff Astle, Bryan Robson, Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown and Willie Johnstone replacing many of those I included.

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