2018-19 EPL Match Day 17 Preview — Liverpool (13-3-0) vs. Manchester United (7-5-4)

There are two important things Jurgen Klopp has yet to do at Liverpool – lift a trophy and defeat Manchester United in Premier League play. While the Reds still have three opportunities to do the former, they have arguably the best chance during his tenure to do the latter Sunday when the table-topping Reds host Jose Mourinho’s inconsistent side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Since arriving at Merseyside in October 2015, Klopp has one win in seven lifetime matches (1-4-2) against Manchester United – a 2-0 victory in the first leg of Liverpool’s round of 16 tie in the 2016 Europa League. That was one of two continental runners-up finishes for Liverpool (13-3-0), the other coming last spring in the Champions League.

There was also a runners-up finish in the 2016 League Cup, and the absence of silverware alongside the five European championships, 18 league titles, seven FA Cups and eight League Cups since lifting the 2012 League Cup has been the one thing that has frustrated supporters.

United (7-5-4), in turn, have done a good job flustering Klopp in league play with three draws and two defeats. Liverpool have failed to score in Klopp’s three matches at Anfield versus United, suffering a 1-0 defeat to Louis van Gaal in 2016 before being held to scoreless draws by Mourinho in the last two meetings.

“In the league, I don’t remember bad results too much, to be honest, but I don’t feel we always got the right result for the performance we had,” Klopp said at his Friday news conference when asked about the overall interest in the match between the two football titans. “Last year, they had a very, very good start in the home game against us and then we more or less took over but couldn’t get the game back, so it was a draw.

Before, I don’t even remember it, but I don’t think we won a lot, so we’ll try to change that at least. It will be a very intense game and we need to be ready for that.”

Liverpool are enjoying their best Premier League start in club history and emerged as the last of the unbeatens after defending champions Manchester City lost to Chelsea last weekend. That defeat, coupled with the Reds’ 4-0 thrashing of Bournemouth, put Klopp’s side atop the Premier League table for the first time since Sept. 22.

To continue ruling the roost, Liverpool will have to show plenty of resiliency after scraping into the Champions League knockout round for a second straight year. The Reds finished runners-up in Group C after a nervy 1-0 victory over Napoli on Tuesday – a triumph and advancement preserved by Alisson’s point-blank save on Arkadiusz Milik in stoppage time.

The save by the Brasil international shows how Liverpool have come full circle in their footballing, from a swashbuckling side willing to win matches by outscoring opponents as late as last season’s Champions League semifinals to one who can deliver this type of grind-out 1-0 result with a rock-strong defence anchored by Alisson and towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk.

The combined £125 million in transfer fees for the pair have been worth every penny as Liverpool are contenders to lift their first Premier League trophy and win their first title since 1990. But the primary goal in this match is to put another three points on top of the 16 that already exist between themselves and United.

“You know what you’re going to face,” Van Dijk told Sky Sports when asked about playing United. “We have pretty good pace as well, so we don’t need to be scared of anything. But obviously we need to be aware of their danger; they have good players, especially up front.

“We need to be ready for that. But we need to play our game and make sure we are on top of them and make sure they are put under pressure.”

Klopp will have to reshuffle parts of his back four since centre backs Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are sidelined with injuries. Gomez’s versatility will be sorely missed – he also played right back – but Dejan Lovren is still a quality partner for Van Dijk. Right back Trent Alexander-Arnold is also expected to miss out with an ankle injury, with Nathaniel Clyne likely starting in his place.

In his attacking six, it is unknown if Klopp will stick to his regular 4-3-3 in which Mohamed Salah – the offensive hero against Napoli with his first-half goal – Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are across the front line, or use a 4-2-3-1 he has preferred of late in domestic play in which Salah is up front and Mane, Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri are behind him.

Salah is in blistering form with six goals in his last seven matches across all competitions, but the Egypt international, Mane and Firmino have failed to breach United’s defence for a goal in 855 minutes playing together.

While there are few as good as setting up a defence to negate an opponent’s offence as Mourinho, this United team has lurched in quality from match to match all term and arrive at Anfield on a low ebb of that range. Manchester United squandered a chance to finish atop Group H in the Champions League, turning in an insipid performance at Valencia in a 2-1 defeat Wednesday.

Mourinho rotated a good portion of his side for this contest – he made eight changes from the side that beat Fulham 4-1 last weekend as United were already through to the Champions League round of 16 – but the back four continued to be problematic as they conceded on 17 minutes and again right after halftime as defender Phil Jones had a brutal own goal in which his sliding back pass rolled right past keeper Sergio Romero.

Marcus Rashford had a late consolation goal, but with group leaders Juventus suffering a stunning loss at home to last-place Young Boys, United’s performance against a team currently 15th in Spain’s La Liga was too poor for Mourinho to not lose his cool post-match.

“I didn’t learn anything from this game. Nothing that happened surprised me,” he fumed. “I thought we were too passive in the first half. But I think fundamentally this, we wasted the first half playing too comfortable and not enough with the intensity.”

Midfielder Paul Pogba did play the full 90 minutes in his first start in three matches, but he showed Mourinho little reason to be included in the starting XI for this match. Antonio Valencia’s performance at right back also left little to be desired, and it is very possible two of Diogo Dalot’s first three starts at that spot will come against fellow Big Six opponents after the first one came against Arsenal earlier this month.

Up front, Mourinho is hoping Anthony Martial will be available after sitting out the last two matches due to injury. The France international has been United’s best performer in league play with a team-high seven goals despite logging just 787 minutes. By comparison, Romelo Lukaku – the only other player with more than three goals in league play – has six in 1,094 minutes.

Rashford, though, has been in a fine patch of form with two goals and four assists in his last four matches in all competitions. He also powered United to a win over Liverpool in the most recent meeting last term, bagging a brace in the first 24 minutes of a 2-1 win at Old Trafford.

United are unbeaten in their last eight in league play (5-3-0) against Liverpool since a 3-0 defeat at home March 6, 2014. They are also 12-6-8 at Anfield in the Premier League era and 2-2-0 since a 1-0 defeat Sept. 1, 2013, on a fourth-minute goal by Daniel Sturridge.

Sturridge also recorded Liverpool’s last home goal against Manchester United in a 2-1 loss March 22, 2015, with their home drought versus United at 291 minutes in league play.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are healthy 4/7 favourites to claim all three points and remain atop the Premier League table, while United are 11/2 underdogs to regroup from their setback in Spain and begin their charge to challenge for a top-five spot. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 16/5.

Though it would surprise no one to see Mourinho set up United in a defensive stance, oddsmakers do not appear overly convinced it will slow Liverpool down much as there are 8/11 odds for more than 2.5 goals scored compared to 11/10 odds to finish under that threshold. There is even money for one side to post a shutout compared to 3/4 odds for both teams scoring.

Liverpool own the first six slots for potential first-goal scorers, with Salah leading the way at 10/3. Understudies Daniel Sturridge (7/2) and Divock Origi (4/1) complete the top three, followed by Firmino (9/2), Mane (5/1) and Xherdan Shaqiri (13/2). While Lukaku is United’s top option, it is a clear fall-off for oddsmakers at 17/2. Martial is a 9/1 option, while Pogba and Rashford are both 11/1 — just behind James Milner (10/1).

For any-time goal-scorers, both Salah (10/11) and Sturridge (20/21) are better than even money selections. Origi is 11/10, followed by Firmino (5/4), Mane (7/5) and Shaqiri (15/8). Lukaku and Martial are United’s top options once more at 13/5 and 11/4, respectively, while Rashford and Pogba again slot behind Milner, this time at 10/3 compared to 3/1 for the Merseyside’s dependable penalty-taker.

PREDICTION

The debate for Klopp between using a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 will rage right up to kickoff, but Liverpool have a chance to go for the jugular here in terms of showing their superiority over Manchester United. Thus, the expectation in this space is Klopp will go all out to turn the screws on Mourinho. That means putting a well-rested Shaqiri into the first XI and testing Shaw and Dalot on the flanks early and often through the Swiss international and Mane.

With Liverpool’s back four mainly defined by who is not available for Klopp, the midfield presents selection headaches of the good kind because the Liverpool gaffer can mix and match to his wants. It was telling Klopp trusted Fabinho enough to start him in the Merseyside derby, and that was with Everton having a far better playmaker in Gylfi Sigurdsson than any one United can offer in the middle of the park if Mourinho drops Pogba to the bench as expected.

The only potential midfielder who would be a surprise inclusion into the first XI would be Adam Lallana, otherwise, the expectation is to see Fabinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum reprise their partnership as the defensive midfield pairing.

Given how Mourinho plays pragmatically, the lineup above is arguably the most defensive route he can take and a formation that can morph into a 5-4-1 with Lukaku as the lone striker. Would it surprise anyone if he did start Pogba? Not really, but after a vanilla performance against Valencia mid-week, there is little to believe Mourinho would give him a second chance.

Given Martial’s injury issues, the expectation is he will start on the bench behind Lingard, who has been solid since picking up his play of late. Rashford right now is the best thing United have going offensively, and he must challenge Andrew Robertson at every opportunity to at least try and stretch Liverpool’s back four.

With no trophies since his arrival, this is a de facto cup final for Klopp and Liverpool. Win this match, and win it impressively, and it serves notice to Manchester City there is most certainly a title race for the final five months. Nothing less will suffice in this instance, and given United’s poor form, nothing less should suffice.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 17 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (13-2-1) vs. Everton (6-6-4)
Wolverhampton (6-4-6) vs. Bournemouth (7-2-7)
Huddersfield Town (2-4-10) vs. Newcastle United (3-4-9)
Tottenham Hotspur (12-0-4) vs. Burnley (3-3-10)

2018-19 UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Preview — Valencia (1-2-2, 5, -1) vs. x-Manchester United (3-1-1, 10, +4)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

y-Barcelona (4-1-0, 13, +9) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (2-1-2, 7, -1)
Liverpool (2-0-3, 6, +1) vs. Napoli (2-3-0, 9, +3)
x-Manchester City (3-1-1, 10, +9) vs. Hoffenheim 1899 (0-3-2, 3, -2)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 16 Preview — Manchester United (6-5-4) vs. Fulham (2-3-10)

The last time Jose Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri’s sides met in the Premier League, Leicester City’s win over Chelsea started an irreversible spiral that led to Mourinho leaving the London side not even halfway through their title defence and served as the impetus for the Foxes’ stirring run to the title.

This time around, Ranieri will be happy just to navigate Fulham out of the drop, while more dropped points could lead to a more tenuous situation for Mourinho at Man United on Saturday when the teams collide at Old Trafford.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

In December 2015, Ranieri’s burgeoning Leicester City hosted the Pensioners. The Foxes had recorded 32 points from 15 matches but yet to beat one of the “Big Six,” while defending champions Chelsea were inconsistent from match to match and had already fallen 17 points behind the Midlands club as Mourinho brooded and stewed, his frustration at a boiling point.

It finally tipped as goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez – the driving forces of that Foxes side – powered a 2-1 win. Mourinho seethed publicly at his players after the match, saying they “betrayed” his game plan and blasted their lack of work ethic. Ranieri – once mocked by Mourinho’s “Zeru Tituli” label of him – would lift the Premier League trophy at season’s end.

Mourinho would leave Chelsea for a second time three days after that loss, a third-year exit that may find history repeating itself at Manchester United. The bad blood between the two has long passed with Ranieri, ever the genial gentleman, gracious in his words ahead of this contest.

“Jose is a fantastic man, very polite,” Ranieri told the club’s official website. “He was the first to send me a message to say ‘welcome back.’ He’s a friend. I’ve known him for a long time, when he came to Chelsea, when he moved to Italy. He was very polite with me in every moment.

“He is a very great man, coach, manager, and also is very important for football.”

United (6-5-4) are in eighth place, trailing Everton and Bournemouth on goal difference, and eight points adrift of Chelsea for fourth. Mourinho’s side have drawn their last three league matches, the last two 2-2 stalemates versus relegation-threatened Southampton and a revived Arsenal.

Once more, Manchester United had to fight back from a losing position, though it took them only a combined five minutes to erase the one-goal deficits Arsenal put them in. Jesse Lingard’s first United goal in any competition this season in the 69th minute – came almost straightaway after an own goal by Marcus Rojo – and provided a split of the points in an entertaining yet scruffy encounter.

Mourinho has projected many moods this season as United have ebbed and flowed over series of matches as well as a single 90-minute contest, but the one that came from Wednesday’s contest was – for him – oddly typical: Frustration about the result but heartened by his team’s will.

“The result is not the result we want, but what can you say,” he said post-match. “Fantastic spirit, fantastic commitment, great intensity, great dynamic, happiness to give absolutely everything, people exhausted at the end of the game, lots of players in difficult circumstances.

“It’s a positive sign (that the players sacrificed themselves), but there are things I cannot get from them and I cannot say much more than this. But they showed a big soul, everybody gave everything. That is for sure and it is a positive feeling. I cannot tell you much more.”

Mourinho made seven changes to his starting XI from the draw at Southampton, with 19-year-old Diogo Dalot thrown into the fire at right back in making his first Premier League start. It was also the first action of any sort for Rojo, while Eric Bailly made a return after not playing the previous nine matches following his hook on 19 minutes in United’s comeback win over Newcastle United.

Injuries have made United’s backline fluid on a match-to-match basis for Mourinho, who will at least have right back Ashley Young available as he returns following his one-match ban for yellow card accumulation. If Luke Shaw has not recovered from the knock that kept him out of Wednesday’s match, Dalot could be flipped to left back, or Young could start there.

It is unknown if Phil Jones will be available after missing the last contest through injury, and Mourinho said Chris Smalling played through a knock himself.

The injury bug, though, has also spread up front as Anthony Martial was taken off just after the hour due to a balky hamstring. The pacey winger picked up his seventh league goal in just nine matches to mark his 23rd birthday and is likely not available for this match. With Alexis Sanchez also sidelined by the same problem, Mourinho’s front three could comprise of Markus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku and Lingard.

Last, but certainly not least, Paul Pogba could get a start in midfield after his 15-minute runout versus Arsenal off the bench. Mourinho dropped the France international after a sloppy effort against Southampton, with rumours persisting about a falling out between the two after the manager reportedly told Pogba he was like “a virus” for his poor play.

Amid United’s three-ring circus enter Fulham, who have taken four points from Ranieri’s three matches in charge. The Cottagers (2-3-10) are at the foot of the table but only trailing Southampton and Burnley on goal difference. More importantly, a win – how ever unlikely – could lift them out of the drop.

Fulham played Leicester City to a 1-1 draw Wednesday, with Aboubakar Kamara’s goal on 42 minutes for Ranieri’s side canceled out by one from James Maddison 16 minutes from time. The Cottagers are the only team in the Premier League without a clean sheet, yet Ranieri is trying to emphasise the positives with his players as they try to climb out of the bottom three.

“I think if you observe the three matches, we improved a little more, a little more, a little more,” Ranieri said. “I know there is a lot more work to do, but we’re in a good way. It’s not easy because when you stay at the bottom of the table, the confidence is not 100 per cent.

“I try to give my confidence to my players. Of course, when you have two or three good results, the confidence grows immediately. For this reason, we must be satisfied. Three matches, four points – that’s good.”

Ranieri has been experimenting up front trying to find a way to further help Aleksander Mitrovic, the team’s top goal-scorer with seven goals in all competitions. The Serbia international picked up his second assist on Kamara’s goal, and right now it appears midfielder Tom Cairney is best suited to play off Mitrovic, while Ryan Sessegnon is being played more forward.

United are unbeaten in their last 10 matches (8-2-0) in all competitions versus Fulham and 11 (10-1-0) at home. The Cottagers’ lone league win at The Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era in 13 tries (1-1-11) was a 3-1 victory in 2003.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, United are still heavy 1/3 favourites to claim all three points despite their spate of injuries, while the Cottagers are 9/1 underdogs to claim just their second Premier League-era win at Old Trafford. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 19/4.

Oddsmakers are rightfully expecting goals in this contest, with 4/7 odds on the teams clearing 2.5 goals while 11/8 is the posting for a contest with zero to two goals. They are, however, torn on whether both teams will score — there are 10/11 odds in both directions for no clean sheets or a minimum of one.

Lukaku tops a list of six United players to open the scoring, with the Belgium international a 7/2 favourite. Martial is at 4/1 despite his injury, while Pogba — United’s desginated penalty taker while playing — and Rashford are 9/2. Lingard (7/1) and Juan Mata (8/1) also get play above Mitrovic, Fulham’s top option with 10/1 odds to give the visitors an 0-1 advantage.

Lukaku is also better than even money to score during the match at 5/6 odds, with Martial at even money. Rashford and Pogba are just off that standard at 11/10, while Lingard has 15/8 odds on scoring in back-to-back matches for United. Mitrovic is an 11/4 selection for the Cottagers, with teammates Kamara, Andre Schurrle and Luciano Vietto all getting 9/2 odds to bag one over the 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

After three matches, there are some things that can be gleaned from Ranieri’s presence. The most immediate one is there looks to be an on-field organisation of the players on the pitch and defined roles beyond the back four. While Fulham have yet to record a clean sheet on the season, there was a semblance of a drilled side before being caught out by Maddison and Leicester City.

But the focus is on Manchester United and Mourinho, who could put any combination of 11 players out there at this point due to injuries and decisions, and it really would not surprise too many people. The most curious of those United players not seeing any action of late is Fred, United’s marquee summer signing at a price tag of £47 million. The Brasil international and midfielder has not played since Nov. 3 against Bournemouth, and while Herrera has come on strong of late and warrants both his spot in the starting XI and his playing time, there is still a surprise that he has not been able to crack into the rotation.

Up front, Rashford is coming off one of his better games. If he can string some of these performances together — something Martial has done despite Mourinho’s lack of pattern regarding the France international’s starts, it is possible United can kick on to the next level everyone expects of them and make a run at a top-four spot.

Lingard and Lukaku may be the swing votes in this match given Fulham’s leaky back line. His industry is never in question, but United need results as the December fixtures come thick and fast. Mourinho’s team have played well in fits and spurts, and do not seem to respond until getting punched in the mouth. This is another such match where United can get one or three points in such scenarios, but the preference would be a straightforward win at Old Trafford.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 2, Fulham 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS

Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)
Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)
Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)

Fourth place in the Premier League table is a spot Arsenal have been intimately familiar with for more than a decade. But unlike seasons past, currently occupying that slot is providing previously unseen optimism as the Gunners go from an intense north London derby win to a mouth-watering clash at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Wednesday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Since winning their last Premier League title in 2004, Arsenal (9-3-2) have finished fourth in six of the previous 14 seasons. The constant battle to remain a Champions League participant under predecessor Arsene Wenger hid the gradual erosion from the elite status the London club enjoyed – something that came home to roost over the Frenchman’s final two seasons with fifth and sixth-place finishes.

Unai Emery’s arrival, initially met with skepticism following his flameout from Paris-St. Germain, has brought renewed spark and life to Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 19 matches (15-4-0) across all competitions after a 4-2 victory over north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in a white-hot derby clash at the Emirates on Sunday.

The Gunners shook off a 2-1 halftime deficit with three unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted a first-half penalty, completed his brace on 56 minutes with a well-placed shot inside the right post that left Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris flat-footed.

The Gunners then grabbed the match with two goals two minutes apart starting in the 75th. Aaron Ramsey forced a Spurs turnover at midfield and sprung Alexandre Lacazette, whose shot took a fortunate deflection off Spurs midfielder Eric Dier and snuck inside the left post. Lucas Torreira then scored his first Arsenal goal, ripping a shot across Lloris after being sent through by Aubameyang.

The Emirates crowd, roiled so much by “Wenger In” and “Wenger Out” factions in recent years, roared their approval in unison as Arsenal overtook their eternal rivals for fourth place on goal difference and are one back of Chelsea for third.

“It’s not just an important game for a manager to win against a team from the top six, it’s important for us as a team,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “We lost the first two games against Chelsea and Manchester City but against Liverpool we played very well. We didn’t win that one but today we won against a good team and showed a very good performance.”

Emery will be forced into one change since defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka picked up his fifth yellow card and must serve a one-match ban. Matteo Guendouzi will likely fill that spot as Emery could continue with a 3-4-3 set-up for a second straight contest.

It is uncertain if Mesut Ozil will be available after the playmaker missed Sunday’s match through a back injury. Ozil did not play against Bournemouth per Emery’s decision, and with Ramsey surprisingly coming on after the club rescinded a contract offer for beyond next season, the former Germany international’s status is starting to bubble into an unwanted distraction for the Gunners. Emery, though, seems to be relishing his English adventures as they take him from one high-stakes game to another with Wednesday’s match-up.

“It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge,” he said Monday. “It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away. We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s a new challenge because we’re going to play against Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.

“For us, it’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. If we are stronger now, we need to (show that) on Wednesday.”

As Arsenal bring a tidal wave of momentum to Old Trafford, the inconsistencies persist for Manchester United (6-4-4). For the second time already this term, Jose Mourinho’s team recovered at least one point from a two-goal deficit after finishing 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday.

With a lack of available bodies in central defence, Mourinho opted for a 5-3-2 set-up that included midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as his three centre backs. The plan backfired spectacularly as a relegation-threatened Saints squad were two up after 20 minutes.

United’s fightback revolved around Marcus Rashford, whom Mourinho exasperated midweek after missing a gilt-edged chance in their Champions League win over Young Boys. The England international set up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera six minutes apart late in the first half – the latter a spectacular run along the end line before spotting a charging Herrera — that was enough to see United through for a point.

“Yes (it was two points dropped),” Mourinho said post-match. “The result is not good so I have to say we dropped two points. If you are losing 4-0 and you get to 4-4 I would say maybe not. I think the comeback is good from 2-0 down to 2-2 in normal conditions everybody says it is a point gained, you have the game lost and you get a point, so normally you say it is a positive point, but it is a match that we want to win.”

Mourinho, though, was optimistic Lukaku’s goal will get the Belgium international to finally kick on. His fifth goal of the season in all competitions ended a personal 981-minute drought stretching back to Sept. 15 at Watford.

Like his counterpart, Mourinho is forced into one change for this match since right back Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card. The most likely option to replace him is Diogo Dalot, who made his long-awaited Premier League debut after left back Luke Shaw was forced off with a knock. Mourinho could also turn to Antonio Valencia or play Marcus Rojo at left back if Shaw cannot play.

Central defence, though, continues to be a nightmare as Phil Jones figures to be the only centre back certain to play. Chris Smalling sat out Saturday with a knock, and Mourinho continues to have little faith in Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelof is out until Boxing Day with a hamstring injury, so there could be more of Matic and McTominay as part of a five-man back line.

Mourinho hopes to have Rashford available after lifting him for the final 15 minutes with a knock. Jesse Lingard would be the most obvious replacement on the right attacking side for United, while Anthony Martial could be restored to the starting XI if Mourinho reverts to a 4-3-3.

Also unavailable through injury is ex-Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, who did play in last season’s corresponding fixture after his January move from the Emirates. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was shipped to London as part of the move, did score in that 2-1 United victory.

Manchester United did their first double over Arsenal since 2011-12 last term and are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches (8-3-0) against them at Old Trafford. The Gunners did record an FA Cup quarterfinal win in 2015, but they are just 4-7-19 at the Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era.

Arsenal’s last league victory at Manchester United was a 1-0 win in 2006 courtesy an 85th-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight favourites at 29/20, with the Gunners 2/1 underdogs to leave Old Trafford with three points for the first time in league play in over a decade. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2 and the longshot of this contest.

Oddsmakers are expecting the same kind of frailities at the back they showed over the weekend, with 8/13 odds for the total to clear 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for two or fewer goals. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score while there are 6/4 odds of at least one team recording a clean sheet.

While not surprising given his form and his club’s form, it is still a little jarring to see a Gunner lead the toteboard at Old Trafford with Aubameyang getting 7/2 odds to open the scoring. Lacazette and Lukaku are joint-second at 5/1, with the United duo of Martial and Paul Pogba at 13/2. Young Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and ex-United winger Mkhitaryan join Rashford at 7/1 odds to open the scoring.

Aubameyang is also better than even money to score during the 90 minutes, getting 10/11 odds. Lacazette and Lukaku are again paired together at 13/10, with Martial and Pogba likewise at 7/4 odds. Nketiah, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all have 15/8 odds to find the back of net, with Lingard and Emile-Smith Rowe are both 13/5.

PREDICTION

These are the type of matches where Mourinho is renown for finding a way to win and defy the odds of the moment… and then letting everyone know about it. Yet his refusal to play Bailly — though it was revealed before the Southampton match he has a back injury —  and now, not playing Rojo has created a discombobulated back line that will have its hands full trying to stop an Arsenal offence flowing at top pace.

Then there is the on-going war of trying to get the best out of Pogba, with whom Mourinho had another tete-a-tete in the locker room at halftime of the Southampton match in which the manager “calmly” criticised the France international for turning the ball over so much. In turn, Pogba said Mourinho’s system does not give him the freedom of movement to make the passes he wants.

This is a match United need to at worst not lose if they have any serious designs on a top-four finish. They are not overturning the already-16 point deficit to front-running City. Lose this match, and Arsenal are 11 points clear of United with 23 matches to play. It sounds doable, but given the week-to-week fluctuations in quality of play and mood of Mourinho, does anyone truly know what they will get from Manchester United?

There will be many things interesting about this contest, starting with Dalot at right back in a pressure cooker of an environment with an in-form Aubameyang ready to corkscrew him into the ground. Yet the real X-factor on that side may be Kolasinac, who looks like Emery’s mad scientist experiment come to life with unorthodox runs.

Another point of curiosity is who starts in the middle of the park for United. Does Mourinho risk Matic being exposed for his lack of pace, or does he put either Herrera or Pogba? Herrera may be the better answer considering Pogba leads the Premier League in lost balls this season, but it may sacrifice link play to their front three. 

This is where Lingard could be the most vital part of United’s XI because he’s the one who enjoys doing damage on the edge of the penalty area and will not be afraid to test Leno from distance.

For the Gunners, there is still concern about the back, three in this case. Xhaka’s absence could loom large, but the moment should not be too big for Guendouzi to fill his spot. Additionally, Torreira has been everything and then some since arriving from Sampdoria via Uruguay this summer. The 22-year-old embodies the renewed vigour and, dare it be said? — swagger of Arsenal, taking the yellow card for the shirt removal celebration after Arsenal’s fourth.

This could be the ships passing in the night moment where Arsenal are truly on their way while Manchester United continue to pile up a list of questions and holes that need to be answered and addressed. Yet again, it could very well be the case where Mourinho has one or two last aces in his deck and will find a way to snare a point.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 1.

Other EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 14 Preview — Southampton (1-5-7) vs. Manchester United (6-3-4)

Jose Mourinho has never been one who worries about style points, but at the same time, Mark Hughes could find himself out of a job come Monday if he fails to get Southampton three points from Saturday’s match versus Manchester United at St. Mary’s.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Mourinho stole the limelight for his water-bottle tossing antics following Marouane Fellaini’s stoppage-time goal that secured a spot for United (6-3-4) in the knockout round of the Champions League with a match to spare, but Hughes enters this match hanging onto his position by the barest of threads.

Southampton (1-5-7) are at the top of the drop on eight points, ahead of both Cardiff City and Fulham on goal difference, and winless in their last 11 across all competitions (0-6-5). Saints supporters were expecting something better when Hughes was tasked with rescuing the club from the drop last term.

He nearly performed an ignominious double of getting two teams relegated as he was sacked from Stoke City prior to his arrival at St Mary’s, where he took eight points from the final five matches to get them three points clear in 17th.

That poor form has carried over to this term, which makes the three-year contract he signed before the season all the more of an albatross. Southampton have gone 3-7-12 in 22 league matches under Hughes’ watch, and the gaffer has claimed just 31 points from his last 39 Premier League contests.

The Times has reported former QPR and Leicester City manager Paul Sousa could be a candidate to replace Hughes. But the current boss, who is a staggering 1-to-8 favourite among oddsmakers as the next manager to get sacked, struck a combative tone in Thursday’s news conference.

“It’s water off a duck’s back. In this day and age there are media outlets that find it’s in their interests to try to set the agenda,” said Hughes, who could be the first manager in Premier League history to be sacked by two different clubs in the same calendar year. “I’m not the only manager of a club down the bottom, maybe underachieving at the moment, but I seem to be the only one getting the brunt of the speculation.

“The reality is if people surmise a manager is under pressure almost every sports agent in the country will put forward clients and try to get in contact with the powers that be, saying ‘This is the right guy if you are thinking of making a change.'”

The irony of Hughes losing his cool in their 1-1 draw versus Watford, in which Southampton had a goal incorrectly chalked off for offsides on a call VAR would have easily overturned had it been in use, made a tight circle Tuesday in their scoreless Carabao Cup tie versus Leicester City.

Steven Davis had a goal disallowed after VAR ruled Nathan Redmond committed a handball in the build-up, and Southampton’s luck went from bad to worse just before the spot kicks when Leicester keeper Danny Ward nudged Manolo Gabbiadini’s free kick onto the woodwork. Gabbiadini’s miserable day concluded and Southampton’s stay in the Carabao Cup ended when Ward saved his attempt from the spot in the sixth round of penalty kicks.

Hughes made five changes to the starting XI that suffered a 3-2 loss at Fulham last weekend that added to the inquest about his future. The manager is hoping top goal-scorer Danny Ings will be available for this match.

Ings, who has four of Southampton’s 10 league goals, was forced off in the first half of the draw against Watford and missed the last two contests.

As Hughes twists in the wind, Mourinho defiantly spits into it. Manchester United’s rollercoaster season continued Tuesday at Old Trafford in a turgid match versus Swiss side Young Boys, with Fellaini – the throwback player Mourinho has protected like a son from the critics – controlling a cross from Romelu Lukaku at the top of the box and scoring in the 91st minute for a last-gasp 1-0 victory.

Mourinho, who had cut a frustrated figure in the coach’s box much of the match, had a celebration that was as much catharsis as happiness, swinging a crate of water bottles and slamming it onto the ground. And ever ready to remind reporters of his track record of success, Mourinho was quick to point out he retained his 100 percent mark of advancing to the final 16 of the Champions League.

“For some of my lovers I just want to say for the ones that like stats: 14 seasons in the Champions League, 14 times qualified through the group phase,” Mourinho crowed. “Never one of my teams stay behind in the group phase. The season I didn’t play Champions League, I won the Europa League.”

Yet the track record also hides lineup decisions that continue to confound as United enter this match in seventh place and seven points adrift of fourth. Lukaku and Paul Pogba both started the match on the bench, with Fellaini and Fred the preferred choices to flank Nemanja Matic. Alexis Sanchez did not make the 18-man squad as rumours of an irreparable rift between the Chile international and Mourinho persist.

And all of those decisions would have been ripe for second-guessing had keeper David De Gea not made one of the top saves of his career for either club or country in the 70th minute, diving to his right to claw out a shot by Ulisses Garcia that took two deflections and seemed destined to bounce inside the left post.

“From my position I think David’s save looks a phenomenal save,” said Mourinho two days before the team exercised an option to keep De Gea between the sticks through next season. “A save that only the best goalkeeper in the world does and gives his team the possibility to win the match. He’s a world-class player. He’s the best goalkeeper in the world and we need the best goalkeeper in the world and you need also some other players who are the best in the world. In this case, we have the best goalkeeper in the world and I know that he wants to stay.”

The win also served notice Mourinho prefers Phil Jones to partner in central defence with Chris Smalling over Eric Bailly while Victor Lindelof is sidelined. The Sweden international is not expected to be back until at least Boxing Day with a hamstring injury.

United are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) against Southampton in all competitions and carry a 363-minute shutout streak in league play since Charlie Austin scored an 87th-minute winner for the Saints in a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Jan. 23, 2016. The Red Devils won 1-0 in last season’s corresponding fixture on Lukaku’s first-half goal.

Manchester United are 28-6-7 versus Southampton in the Premier League era and are unbeaten in nine (7-2-0) in all competitions at St Mary’s since a 1-0 defeat in 2003.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, United are 10/11 favourites to claim all three points and perhaps begin a climb up the table. There are 13/5 odds on the sides splitting the points, which still may not be enough to save Hughes, and Southampton have 7/2 odds on pulling off a win that could prevent a stay of execution for the gaffer.

Oddsmakers are unsure which way this match will trend offensively as both over and under 2.5 goals have 10/11 odds. They seem to be leaning toward there being goals, though, as there are 3/4 odds on both teams scoring compared to even money for a clean sheet by one or both sides.

Despite a goal-scoring drought that has now spanned United’s last 14 matches, oddsmakers are offering Lukaku as the top option to open the scoring at 9/2 odds. The Belgium international is followed by a trio of teammates as Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are all 6/1 picks. A well-rested Austin and Michael Obafemi are joint 7/1 as Southampton’s top picks along with Pogba.

Lukaku and his teammates also lead the toteboard for scoring over the course of 90 minutes, with the centre forward at 11/8 and his teammates at 15/8. Austin, Obafemi and Pogba have 9/4 odds to put one in the back of the net, while snake-bit Gabbiadini has 13/5 odds to score a goal.

PREDICTION

It was borderline comical to hear Hughes be so defiant during his press conference Thursday, especially considering he could not confirm he had the backing of the club’s board. Southampton have been an abject side for most of this term save Ings, and while Austin was properly incensed when the disallowed goal cost the Saints two points, there has been far too little of that fire throughout the side.

Speaking of Ings, the belief is he will be on the bench for this match, hence the belief Southampton will open in a 4-2-3-1. If Hughes does put the Liverpool loanee in his first XI, the Saints would probably open in a 4-4-2.

Yet all of those lineup choices and formations could be rendered moot if United play the match they are capable of playing. While problems still persist at Old Trafford — through Mourinho’s creation and otherwise — there was probably a huge weight lifted off the players collectively by qualifying for the Champions League knockout round with a match to spare.

That break will loom large heading into the holiday fixture list, especially since Mourinho is already down one centre back physically (Lindelof) and apparently a second in trust (Bailly). Then there is the issue of Sanchez, who is probably livid he didn’t make the mid-week 18 and will probably be a fringe player in this contest and get a half-hour at most off the bench.

What United need is a United-type goal, one that answers the cries of “Attack, attack, attack” that will come from the road supporters. The empty seats at Old Trafford versus Young Boys was something Ed Woodward and the board likely took notice, and after a scruffy finish by the publicly underappreciated Fellaini, this team needs a jolt.

Unfortunately for Hughes, that jolt will likely lead to the pink slip that will not be a shock for anyone involved.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 14 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (11-2-0) vs. Bournemouth (6-2-5)
Chelsea (8-4-1) vs. Fulham (2-2-9)
Arsenal (7-3-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (10-0-3)
Liverpool (10-3-0) vs. Everton (6-4-3)

Champions League Match Day 5 Preview — Manchester United (2-1-1, 7, +2) vs. Young Boys (0-1-3, 1, -8)

Another motivating ploy or just a genuine fear of a malaise? A testy Jose Mourinho looks to get Manchester United nearer to qualification of the Champions League knockout rounds Tuesday when they host Swiss side Young Boys in a Group H match.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

Any hopes Manchester United harbour of making a run at their eternal rivals Manchester City are rapidly fading as the Red Devils are now 14 points adrift of their noisy neighbours and in seventh place in the Premier League following a scoreless draw at home versus Crystal Palace on Saturday.

The thought United had turned a corner after their smash-and-grab raid at Juventus in their previous Champions League match proved to be a false dawn as they followed that victory up with a 3-1 derby loss to City and this tepid draw coming out of the international break. Adding two more points to the already yawning chasm in chasing an imperious City side clearly rankled Mourinho, who told The Times afterward:

There was not enough intensity and not enough desire. We played the game like one more game but it is not one more game, it is a game we really need to win. You have to play with your brains, but also your heart and there was not enough heart.”

Romelu Lukaku’s goalless drought reached 11 matches in all competitions dating back to his goal versus Watford on Sept. 15, and United went a second consecutive league match without a goal in the run of play. Midfielder Paul Pogba, who sat out the derby due to injury, also returned to the fray and his ineffectiveness incurred the wrath of Mourinho, who tweaked the France international post-match for chartering a plane to Paris with teammate Anthony Martial and fellow compatriot City left back Benjamin Mendy to attend a friend’s party.

“There are people who will have a bad dinner, there are people who will have a nice dinner and there are even people who will party. That is the way it is,” Mourinho said.

Despite their uneven play domestically, Manchester United (2-1-1) can clinch a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League with a match to spare if they win this match and Valencia fail to win at Juventus in the other Group H contest Tuesday.

Mourinho will make at least two changes to his back line from Saturday’s draw. Left back Luke Shaw returns having served a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation, but centre back Victor Lindelof is sidelined with a hamstring injury, which makes Eric Bailly the likely replacement to pair with Chris Smalling.

Bailly has not played for United in any competition since Oct. 6, getting a quick hook from Mourinho 19 minutes into their match versus Newcastle United in which the Red Devils conceded twice in the opening 10 minutes before rallying for a 3-2 win.

It also seems unlikely Lukaku will get another crack to lead the line as Mourinho was hoping the Belgium international would end his slump versus Palace. Marcus Rashford appears most likely to replace him, with either Jesse Lingard or Juan Mata on the right after both played for an hour Saturday.

“It’s really hard to point a finger to what’s going on,” Shaw said at Monday’s news conference. “Of course, it’s frustrating to watch, especially with me [being suspended] on the weekend, but we all know that we are much better than that. We train really hard during the week.

“We always train hard, we always want the best from each other, we always push each other as a team,” he added, “But it’s easy for me to come here and say we need to do this, we need to do that. We need to show it on the pitch, starting with tomorrow.”

Young Boys are all but mathematically eliminated from advancing out of Group H, and the Swiss side have been better than only Lokomotiv Moscow and AEK Athens in this competition. Gerardo Seoane’s side have won their two league matches on either side of the international break since a 3-1 loss at home to Valencia in their least Champions League match and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Lugano on Saturday.

Miralem Sujelmani scored seven minutes from time as Young Boys moved a staggering 15 points clear of FC Basel in the Swiss Super League through just 15 matches. Seoane will be without midfielder Sekou Sanogo, who was given a straight red card in the 77th minute of Young Boys’ loss to Valencia for a two-footed challenge on Frances Coquelin.

Forward Guillaume Hoarau, who has three of the club’s five goals in Champions League play — including their two qualifying matches — will also miss out through injury.

“We have to go beyond our limits and hope Manchester United that Manchester United aren’t at the races. We will miss the physical presence and personality of Sanogo (suspended) and Hoarau (injured).

“We have learned some lessons in this Champions League campaign. The team has learned its lessons from past games. This will be a very different game to the reverse fixture in Bern.”

United will wrap up their group play at Valencia in what could be a winner-take-all encounter, while Young Boys will host Juventus.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are 2/7 favourites to claim all three points and give themselves a chance for advancing to the knockout round. There are 9/2 odds Young Boys can claim a historic point from Old Trafford, and 11/1 odds the Swiss side can pull off the shock win.

Despite United’s woes, oddsmakers expect goals in this game as the Red Devils have 4/5 odds to win while getting more than 2.5 goals. A United win by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline has 27/10 odds, and a draw with less than 2.5 goals — something United did earlier in group play at home versus Valencia — has 6/1 odds. A high-scoring draw or a Young Boys win with more than 2.5 goals offer identical 18/1 odds, while a low-scoring win for the Swiss outfit is the longshot at 22/1.

Oddsmakers also feel Lukaku is due to end his scoring woes as he is the top choice to open the scoring at 10/3 odds. Martial, who capped the scoring in the reverse fixture — a 3-0 United win — is second with 7/2 odds, while Rashford and Alexis Sanchez are joint-third at 4/1. Pogba, who had a brace in the first match with a goal in play and from the spot, has 9/2 odds to again score first versus Young Boys, while Lingard and Mata are both 6/1 options.

Young Boys strikers Jean-Pierre Nsame and Roger Assale are the top options for the visitors at 10/1 and 11/1, respectively.

Lukaku is even money to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Martial just off that mark at 21/20. At 23/20, Sanchez edges out Rashford (13/10) for third, and Lingard and Mata are both 9/5 picks. Nsame and Assale again lead the toteboard options for Young Boys, this time at 3/1 and 10/3.

PREDICTION

If ever there was a time for United to put together a solid 90-minute effort, it is here and now. On paper, the schedule breaks kindly for Mourinho’s team this week — they are prohibitive favourites for this match and will be again at St Mary’s against a beleaguered Southampton side who could sack Mark Hughes by the final whistle of that contest should United win.

There are two players who will be under the microscope for this match — Lukaku and Bailly. Lukaku’s lack of goals will be a talking point until he does put one in the back of the net, but for Bailly, this is a chance to get in Mourinho’s good graces since Lindelof’s hamstring injury likely will sideline him the rest of the calendar year. The only other central defender Mourinho can turn to besides Bailly is Phil Jones, whose last match action came in their Carabao Cup loss to Derby County in late September.

There will be a fair amount of scoreboard watching because if United take care of business, and Juve does them a solid and beat Valencia, that final Champions League match becomes a much-needed dead rubber in which Mourinho can blood the youngsters and reserves to begin rotating personnel ahead of the hectic holiday fixture list. This game will likely lack the wanted aesthetics of United picking their number, but right now, any win will do.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 2, Young Boys 0.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Lyon (1-3-0, 6, +1) vs. Manchester City (3-0-1, 9, +9)
Paris-St. Germain (1-2-1, 5, +4) vs. Liverpool (2-0-2, 6, +2)
Tottenham Hotspur (1-1-2, 4, -2) vs. Inter Milan (2-1-1, 7, 0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day Preview — Manchester City (9-2-0) vs. Manchester United (6-2-3)

For all of the terrific football Manchester City have produced on the pitch during their six-game winning streak they carry into the Etihad for Sunday’s 177th Manchester derby versus eternal rivals United, it has been the troublesome allegations off it that have dominated the headlines surrounding the reigning Premier League champions.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Manchester City (9-2-0) have looked imperious for most of the season, their lone loss a stunning 2-1 home defeat to Lyon to open Champions League group play. The Citizens, though, have one foot through the door in advancing to the knockout round after smashing six past Shakhtar Donetsk without reply Tuesday to put them top of Group E with two matches remaining.

While City were clearly the best team, there were some noses turned up regarding the source of their second goal – a penalty Gabriel Jesus converted after Raheem Sterling stubbed his toe into the turf while shooting and fell without any assistance from Shakhtar defender Mykola Matviyenko. Referee Viktor Kassai pointed to the spot without hesitation – even Guardiola turned to his bench in disbelief it was awarded – and after Jesus stroked his 12-yard effort home, the rout was on.

The Brasil international finished with three goals, converting a second and more deserving penalty late, while Sterling, David Silva and Riyad Mahrez supplied the other half of the haul.

But the dark clouds that had been forming since last week, created by the allegations published in the German magazine Der Spiegel that City regularly and repeatedly circumvented rules regarding Financial Fair Play and were cut a sweetheart deal by then-UEFA general secretary and current FIFA president Gianni Infantino to avoid a Champions League ban persisted.

“Well I think about that issue the club issued a statement last Friday about what happened, the stolen emails,” Guardiola said before Tuesday’s victory. “But about the business, about how they handle this kind of situation, I am completely out of that. I am part of the club, I am supporter of the club, and we want to do what we have to do in terms of the rules.

“I think that’s (the allegations) been said for the last decade, so the people is saying about the club for the last decade just win because we have money. That is always the issue here, because to pass to stay in one level and achieve another level you need a lot of time, and of course money. When you invest more, this gap, the time reduces. And that’s normal.”

The team itself has not offered a statement beyond what was offered last week, in which they labeled the allegations an “organized and clear” attempt to damage the club’s reputation while referring to the leaked emails as “out of context materials purportedly hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people.”

On the pitch, though, everything has been rosy for City. They have piled up 23 goals while conceding just one during their winning streak, getting strikes from 11 different players. There has been no drop-off in form since Kevin De Bruyne was again lost to a knee injury in the Carabao Cup win over Fulham, and the club received more good news Friday when Sterling put pen to paper on a three-year extension to stay at City through 2023. The England international has 51 goals and 55 assists in all competitions since joining from Liverpool in 2015.

Silva, one of City’s longest-tenured players after arriving on the blue side of Manchester in 2010, feels the hold of power has moved across town during his time with the Citizens.

“United commanded a lot of respect when I arrived,” he told the club’s official website. “But I think it changed from when we won at Old Trafford 6-1 (in 2011) and the mentality changed a little bit that day. Now I think we are held in great esteem.

“You remember a bit about every derby you’ve played in,” Silva added, “but that one, the result, and the fact that it was at United, the respect that United commanded in that period in time, makes it one that will forever go down in history.”

Manchester United (6-2-3) avoided history of a horrid sort in its last trip seven kilometres to the east, recovering from a 2-0 halftime deficit to win 3-2 and delay the inevitable of City’s clinching of the Premier League title. In a season of fits and starts, it appears United finally have achieved a sense of consistency as they have won three on the trot.

Jose Mourinho’s side performed an impressive smash-and-grab raid at Juventus on Tuesday, scoring twice after the 85th minute to stun the Italian giants 2-1 for their biggest victory since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Juan Mata scored on a free kick on 86 minutes, and Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci bundled home a free kick by Ashley Young in a goal-mouth scrum three minutes later for an own goal as United greatly enhanced their chances of advancing from Group H of the Champions League.

“As soon as there was the free-kick in there, I had the confidence that I had to take it,” Mata told MUTV about his equaliser. “I told Ash: ‘Please let me take it, because I can go over the wall. So I tried to do what I do in training a lot of times, practicing, practicing. It was important to score to make it 1-1 and, after, it led us to the 1-2. I think because of the venue and the importance of the game, it’s one of the best (that I’ve scored).”

While derby week usually means Mourinho offers some sort of locker room material that can galvanise an opponent, “The Special One” demurred about both the FFP allegations swirling around City and about Guardiola’s side, knowing full well a defeat in this game would leave United 12 points adrift of their noisy neighbours and all but ending their chances of winning the league.

“If we draw (the difference) is nine (points),” he told The Times. “If we lose it is 12. We have to just think about the match, it is difficult enough as an isolated event … they are a very powerful team.

“If you want to speak about their football potential we can speak and about where football potential starts, and that starts with investment,” Mourinho added, himself no stranger to big-money football at his previous stops and with United. “After that of course there is a quality of the work, of the organisation. I think that is untouchable, but what’s behind it, I cannot say.”

Mourinho does have a late injury concern as midfielder Paul Pogba missed practice Friday after picking up a knock against Juventus. Romelu Lukaku is expected to be available after missing the last two matches with a hamstring injury, giving Mourinho the selection headache of which three will be up front among the Belgium international, Mata, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.

Of the group, Martial appears to be the safest on the left side, with Lingard getting a surprising start on the right as Mourinho chose Sanchez to play centre-forward for his industry. It would not be surprising to see Rashford restored to the right side, though Mourinho could opt for Sanchez and Mata to play with Martial if Lukaku is not fully ready to start.

One of Manchester’s own will serve as referee, with Anthony Taylor getting the call to oversee his first derby.

United lead the all-time series 73-51, and the teams have shared the points on 52 occasions. Guardiola has yet to beat United at the Etihad as Mourinho held City to a 0-0 draw in 2016-17 before last season’s defeat.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, oddsmakers do not seem all that sold on a Manchester United resurgence against the in-form style of City, who are 4/11 favourites to win this match. United are 15/2 longshots to return across town with a win for the second straight season and there are 4/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

For the #Starman offers, the only one that looks remotely appealing and has a realistic chance of occurring is Aguero getting a goal and an assist at 9/2 when compared to what is being offered for Pogba.

City are 5/6 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored while they also have 17/5 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There is a clear line of notice for a 0-0 or 1-1 finish at 6/1 odds, and for those who think lightning can strike twice, United offer a return of 11/1 with another victory over 2.5 goals as opposed to 18/1 for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline.

Aguero, unsurprisingly, leads the list of choices to score the match’s first goal at 14/5 odds, but Jesus’ hat trick against Shakhtar impressed enough to put him second at 16/5, ahead of Sterling (4/1). The next four choices also belong to the sky blue hue of Manchester as Mahrez (9/2), Leroy Sane (5/1), and the Silvas — David (8/1) then Bernardo (9/1) get billing ahead of Lukaku (10/1). Martial and Rashford are both 11/1 picks to make it 0-1, with Sanchez a step back at 12/1.

Aguero and Jesus are better than even money to score in this match, with the Argentine at 3/4 and his South American compatriot 5/6. Sterling narrowly missed out being included in this group at 5/4, closely followed by Mahrez (13/10) and Sane (6/4). Lukaku again leads the line for United, this time at 14/5, trailed by Rashford (3/1), Martial (16/5), and Sanchez (10/3).

PREDICTION

There has been one thing missing in the build-up to this match — enmity. One part is because the teams had mid-week Champions League obligations, which both handled deftly (and excitingly in the case of United). One could only imagine the Mourinho mood had he returned from Italy without a result in that contest, and the inquest that would have ensured. A second part is the oxygen being sucked out of the room by the explosive allegations in Der Speigel. This has the potential to hang over City throughout the season and only grow into a larger mushroom cloud the further they progress in Champions League should that happen. But that is for spring, for now, let us try to stay in the seven kilometres between the clubs.

“The Special One” still has many things to ponder across his midfield and attack. It seems all but certain Lukaku will return to lead the line, and Martial is in too good of form to be dropped, so that leaves Rashford, Sanchez, Mata, and Lingard for the right wing. Sanchez is clearly out of position there, so scratch the Chilean.

Lingard did not do anything to warrant a second consecutive start in his surprising mid-week appearance at Juventus, so now it is down to Rashford and Mata. The likely pick is Mata because Rashford has the ability to enter the match at either forward position off the bench, giving Mourinho some versatility.

The next area is midfield, where Pogba and Matic will start, but the choice is between Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini at the right slot. Herrera did enough versus Juve to warrant a second start, getting the first after his strong effort against Bournemouth, but Mourinho has always had a soft spot for Fellaini’s disruptive abilities. The hedge is still Herrera in this instance.

If there is a worry for Mourinho, it is at right back. Ashley Young has been credible of late, but there are few in the Premier League with the pace of Benjamin Mendy, and he will be eager to test Young at every opportunity. That is another reason Herrera is would get the call over Fellaini.

Guardiola does not have a selection headache on his hands for this contest. Aguero is going to lead the line, Sterling and Mahrez will flank him, and the Silvas will do likewise with Fernandinho. Sane will come off the bench, as will Ilkay Gundogan if needed. City’s form has been so rampant the past fortnight one almost has to wonder if any overconfidence has crept into the side.

Then again, all Guardiola has to do is show tape of that 15-minute stretch in the second half when Pogba grabbed the match by its throat and scored twice before City’s disastrous high line on Sanchez’s free kick gifted Smalling the go-ahead tally.

For all the talk of how Mourinho parks the bus on the road to get a result, he still has gotten them lately. United are 2-1-1 in their last four versus Big Six opponents outside Old Trafford and their 2-2 draw at Chelsea let them kick on to bigger and better things, home defeat to Juventus notwithstanding.

The only fear with United is they emptied the tank leaving it so late versus Juventus. The only problem with that is City’s attack promotes plenty of fear even at full strength.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Manchester United 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 12 EPL PREVIEWS:

Leicester City (5-1-5) vs. Burnley (2-2-7)
Huddersfield Town (1-3-7) vs. West Ham United (3-2-6)
Liverpool (8-3-0) vs. Fulham (1-2-8)
Chelsea (8-3-0) vs. Everton (5-3-3)