Rotation is the watchword for Manchester United heading into their final Group H Champions League match Wednesday at Valencia as Jose Mourinho’s already-through side are content to hold their runners-up spot versus a Tarongues club who have already assured themselves passage to the Europa League.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Technically, Manchester United can finish atop Group H with a victory and a loss by Juventus, but since the Italian side are hosting Young Boys in their group finale, there is little belief the last-place Swiss club can pull off what would be the biggest shock of Champions League group play.
United come into this match in good spirits for a change, having properly walloped a last-place Fulham side 4-1 Saturday in their last Premier League match. Marcus Rashford continued his stellar run of playmaking, setting up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata in the first half-hour before adding a strike of his own on 82 minutes.
Ashley Young scored the other goal for the Red Devils, who are unbeaten in five (2-3-0) in all competitions and have lost just once in their last nine (5-3-1). Though there is nothing to play for, Mourinho has opted to bring just two academy players to Spain as he feels his senior players are deserving of playing time for this match.
“The kids won’t start the match. (James) Garner will be on the bench, and Mason (Greenwood) is the protection player, in case we have any injuries,” Mourinho said at his Tuesday news conference. “We have players that need to play; we have players that deserve to play so, in spite of leaving a few players in Manchester, we are going to play with a team only with players from the first team.”
One senior player getting the start will be Paul Pogba, who was an unused substitute versus Fulham and played just 15 minutes in the 2-2 draw versus Arsenal in the previous match. While things have been tense between manager and star throughout the season, Mourinho placed little expectations upon the France international for this match beyond a professional performance.
“I’m looking for him to play well, and to have a good impact in the game and in the team,” Mourinho said. “[It will be] a team with many players that don’t have many miles in their legs, a team with some players that are not playing a lot.
“So I hope that people like Paul and a couple of others that are normally in the team, who have the number of miles that players need to be at that top level, I hope that they can have a good impact on the team.”
Mourinho will again have a makeshift backline of sorts as Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw did not practice, and Diogo Dalot — who responded well to the pressure of his first two Premier League starts — also is nursing an injury, as is Matteo Darmian. Centre back Victor Lindelof remains a longer-term absentee with a hamstring injury.
Up front, Anthony Martial also did not train Tuesday, and Alexis Sanchez is also sidelined with a hamstring injury. After back-to-back starts for the first time this season, Jesse Lingard will likely be among the reserves.
Valencia are also expected to be without a slew of first-choice starters with nothing at stake, as coach Marcelino already has an eye on his club’s league match against Eibar this weekend. The Tarongues are 15th in the La Liga table, just four points above the drop but also only six out of fifth place.
“I am as strong, convinced and excited as I was on my first day here, if not more. But obviously when you do not win you cannot be so happy, it would be irresponsible if there was no self-assessment. The word surrender is not in my vocabulary. I’m not going to give up,” Marcelino explained about his priorities for this match.
“This is a game we did not want to play, with hopes of qualifying over. Having sealed a place in the UEFA Europa League, and given our Liga situation, the priority has to be the match against Eibar [on Saturday]. At the same time, it’s a Champions League match and they are never meaningless.”
One change will be enforced as defender Jose Luis Gaya is out through suspension. Striker Kevin Gameiro and Jeison Murillo are not expected to play due to injuries, while Goncalo Guedes and Gabriel Paulista are also being held out ahead of league play.
Valencia have been starved offensively for goals in Champions League — the only team they have scored upon in their last eight matches was Young Boys in this term’s group play. Los Che have also lost four of their last six home matches in Champions League.
These teams are no strangers to Champions League play as this will be their eighth meeting. United are 2-5-0 in the previous seven, and goals have been at a premium throughout this rivalry. There have been just five goals combined in the last six matchups, with a scoreless draw on Match Day 2 at Old Trafford.
Per Bet365, Valencia are slight 8/5 favourites to pull out a victory in this dead rubber, while United have 19/10 odds to claim all three points. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 12/5.
Given the teams played to a scoreless draw at Old Trafford coupled with there being nothing at stake, oddsmakers are split on whether there will be goals in this match. There are 10/11 odds on either side of the 2.5 goals threshold, with even money on at least one team recording a clean sheet compared to 3/4 odds on both teams scoring.
Continuing the split decisions up and down the toteboard for this match, Valencia’s Gameiro and Lukaku are joint-top options for the first goal-scorer at 11/2, with Martial and one-time Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi joint-third at 6/1. Santi Mina, who has two of Valencia’s four goals in group play, has 13/2 odds, edging out teammate Moreno Rodrigo and the United duo of Rashford and Pogba.
Gameiro and Lukaku also lead the line for any-time goal-scorers at 7/4, followed by Martial and Batshuayi at 2/1. Santi Mina is 21/10, trailed by the same Rodrigo, Rashford and Pogba trio — all of whom are 9/4. Valencia’s Manuel Goncalo Guedes has 11/4 odds, followed by Dani Parejo at 3/1 and Lingard at 10/3.
If a tree falls at the Mestalla and no one scores a goal, did it really happen? There is little in the way of expectations for this match, though all eyes will be on Pogba as he gets his first start since United’s 2-2 draw at Southampton in which the France international was lifted before the hour. After that match, word got out regarding another disagreement, albeit a calm one, between Mourinho and Pogba.
That said, having Rashford on his side makes for an intriguing examination to see if the forward’s pace is something Pogba can use to help create offence. That McTominay and not Marouane Fellaini is expected to anchor the central midfield is an added layer of intrigue since McTominay has struggled for first-team playing time for most of the season.
It also would have been interesting to see Dalot play after his impressive showings at right back versus both Arsenal and Fulham. After such a dour reverse fixture, it would not be surprising if the sides played to another scoreless draw, but the hunch here is United have too much firepower to bring in the final half-hour for that scoreline to repeat itself.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Valencia 0, Manchester United 1.