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 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 11 Preview — Bournemouth (6-2-2) vs. Manchester United (5-2-3)

Having once more stepped away from a cliff of despair and discontent, Manchester United again try to jump-start their season Saturday at Dean Court against a Bournemouth side who are eager to find out if they can indeed run with the big boys this term.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

United (5-2-3) are in eighth place on 17 points, already nine points back of eternal rivals and reigning champions Manchester City – whom they face at the Etihad next weekend in the first Manchester derby of the season. This match almost has the feel of a trap game for Jose Mourinho’s side, who must also travel to Juventus for a Champions League match that could put their hopes of advancing in peril with a second loss to the Italian side.

As they did previously at Watford and versus Newcastle United, Manchester United showed resiliency in not letting the season go off the rails, this time seeing off in-form Everton 2-1 at Old Trafford last weekend. Paul Pogba alertly knocked home the rebound of his missed penalty after it was stopped by Jordan Pickford, and Anthony Martial continued his scintillating form with his fourth goal in four matches across all competitions.

Despite a non-sensical challenge by Chris Smalling that gifted the Toffees a penalty in the final quarter-hour, United saw the match out without much drama. Whether this was the match that was Martial’s coming-out party – the France international played a vibrant two-way game and his goal was a low, curling beauty across Pickford and off the right post – is yet to be determined, but Mourinho seemed convinced the 22-year-old grasps what he wants.

“He took quite a long time to understand what we want,” Mourinho told The Times. “He took quite a long time for his brain and body to be ready for how we want him to play. His performance without the goal would be a good performance. You cannot score every time you play, where you don’t assist but you have a certain balance. That is the way I think it is going now.”

The overall performance of United, who looked far more aggressive in intent offensively has created a dilemma of sorts for Mourinho. He dropped Romelu Lukaku from the starting XI, and missing a sitter in the final 25 minutes extended the Belgium international’s goal-scoring drought to nine matches in all competitions. But with Marcus Rashford leading the line and Juan Mata on the wing, there was far more creativity throughout the width of the final third as opposed to previously when United may have focused too much on getting the ball to Lukaku in the penalty area.

“I think when he scores one goal, life will change for him,” Mourinho told MUTV. “At the moment, I think he’s under that pressure that normally the strikers put on themselves, plus the press obviously. So it’s not an easy life for strikers when they don’t score goals.”

Martial’s fine run of form has also made a spectator of Alexis Sanchez, who was an unused sub versus Everton. The Chile international has logged just five minutes in United’s last three matches after bagging the late winner versus Newcastle for his only goal of the season.

While it can be discussed the aura that normally surrounds Manchester United has been punctured, it can also be argued Bournemouth’s current form may be strong enough to take on any Premier League side regardless of reputation.

“There is certainly no fear factor. The form book would say we might be favourites going into the game,” midfielder Simon Francis told The Mirror. “I don’t think we see it as a free hit any more, these kinds of games, because we believe we can beat them.

“These games are the ones we can grab by the scruff of the neck and take to Man United. The lads will be raring to go, are looking forward to every Premier League game and why not? We are on good form.”

The Cherries (6-2-2) are sixth in the table, just two points behind fourth-place Arsenal and are unbeaten in eight matches (6-2-0) across all competitions at home after a 2-1 victory over Championship side Norwich City on Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup opposite Chelsea.

Eddie Howe’s men may have been caught looking ahead to this game, but he also overturned eight of his starting XI that gave Fulham an impressive 3-0 thrashing at Craven Cottage last weekend. Defender Steve Cook snapped a 1-1 tie in the 72nd minute as the Cherries suffered most of the match against a determined Canaries side that had deservedly pulled level two minutes before Cook’s marker.

“We looked disjointed, maybe due to players coming in who haven’t had enough games, but we lacked a sharpness and fluency that’s usually there,” Howe noted to the club’s official website. “Overall, it was a disappointing performance but we withstood the pressure and found a way to win. It’s great to be in the next round.”

This is only the second of the “Big Six” squads Bournemouth have faced this season, with the lone result thus far a 2-0 loss at Chelsea. The Cherries went 2-0-10 in such matches last season, and if they are to harbour any hopes of European play next season, they need results in such high-stakes contests.

Striker Joshua King will likely be a late decision for Howe due to an ankle injury that sidelined him for the Fulham match. The Norway international has four goals, tying him for second with Ryan Fraser. Callum Wilson has a team-leading six markers for Bournemouth, who have 19 goals through 10 league matches after netting 45 last term.

United did the double last season, recording clean sheets in both games and emerging with a 1-0 victory at Dean Court on a goal by Lukaku in the 25th minute. Manchester United are unbeaten in their last five versus Bournemouth in league play (4-1-0) since the Cherries recorded a famous 2-1 upset in their first Premier League season in 2015.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are still clear favourites to take home all three points at 21/20 odds, with Bournemouth listed at 12/5 to do likewise and stay unbeaten at home. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 5/2. The most expected outcome is a United win with more than 2.5 goals (19/10), though the same outcome for Bournemouth at 4/1 rates higher than a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline for United (9/2). A draw with under 2.5 goals also offers 4/1 odds, while a Cherries victory by a 1-0 or 2-0 count is 17/2.

Rashford and Lukaku are joint top-options for the match’s first goal-scorer at 5/1, with Martial right behind them at 11/2. Wilson is Bournemouth’s top pick to make it 1-0 for the hosts, also at 1-0, while Sanchez curiously is high on the board at 13/2. Pogba and King are both 7/1, bracketing veteran Cherries striker Jermain Defoe at 13/2.

Lukaku and Rashford also lead the line for any-time goal-scorers with 8/5 odds, again narrowly edging out Martial (7/4). Wilson again gets top billing for the home side at 19/10 odds to score over the 90 minutes, with King 23/10 and both Pogba and Defoe at 11/5. Lurking at 3/1 is Bournemouth’s Brooks, with Fraser getting 10/3 odds to put one past De Gea.

PREDICTION

Note: The inclusion of Rojo is a far-flung guess because no one has been head and shoulders above the rest at right back for Manchester United, and the belief is he cannot be any worse than Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia or anyone else Mourinho can throw back there.

Is this the Manchester United we have been waiting for all season? It has been a season of fits and starts for Mourinho’s men. Every match there is the expectation for them to kick on, they sputter. Every match in which the first few paragraphs of the obituary are ready to be published, they respond with a performance convincing enough to remind us they are Manchester United.

That is what makes this match so interesting. It is the middle of a difficult five-game gauntlet for United that concludes next Sunday across town at the Etihad. They are in no position to rotate personnel to set up for any of these three matches — this one, at Juventus, at City — over the next eight days to maximise the potential of winning three points in any of them.

With Lukaku expected to be returned to centre forward at the expense of Rashford is a curious decision, but also one that makes sense given neither distinguished themselves versus Everton, and Mourinho needs the Belgium to score a goal more heading into next week than he does young Rashford. Pogba has played better of late — penalty approach notwithstanding — and in Mata having a more advanced position, the France international now has a more-defined role on the pitch, something that goes further for him than a defined position.

In some ways, it was gratifying to see Francis’ quote in The Mirror because while United are a solid side, they are not the world-beaters that currently only Manchester City and Liverpool can claim to be. The previous opponents United had when there was a chance to kick them while they were down let them off the hook — more so Watford than Everton, as the latter simply failed to take advantage of gilt-edged chances they created while the former played in awe of the opponents’ shirt.

The good news is that Bournemouth did not do that at Chelsea in September when they suffered a 2-0 loss. That match was scoreless for 72 minutes before the Pensioners broke through, and they added an insurance tally five minutes from time. The Cherries have the form in which they should feel emboldened to take the fight to United at home. If they can flow through the midfield and make Nemanja Matic uncomfortable, this is a game that could be theirs for the taking.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Bournemouth 1, Manchester United 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 11 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (7-1-2) vs. Liverpool (8-2-0)
Wolverhampton (4-3-3) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3)
Newcastle United (0-3-7) vs. Watford (6-1-3)
Chelsea (7-3-0) vs. Crystal Palace (2-2-6)

Champions League Match Day 2 Preview — Manchester United (1-0-0, +3, 3-0) vs. Valencia (0-0-1, -2, 0-2)

The sideshow rages on at Old Trafford, where Manchester United will try to put aside all the distractions created by Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba and create some separation in Group H of the Champions League on Tuesday when they host Valencia.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Any thought that Manchester United had moved on from their early season swoon promptly gave way to a fresh new inquest following a disastrous week in which they were bounced from the Carabao Cup on penalties by Derby County, coached by Frank Lampard, his one-time midfielder at Chelsea, and then were listless in a 3-1 defeat at West Ham United over the weekend.

Mourinho’s relationship at Pogba reached a nadir early last week when he stripped the World Cup winning midfielder of the vice captaincy in front of his teammates at training before the loss to Derby, and things were not helped when Pogba was lifted in the 70th minute of the loss to West Ham.

However, Mourinho then sucked whatever oxygen was left in the room Monday with a fresh round of criticisms of his team, saying “I see upset people, I see people that don’t look like they lost a game. I see different actions but what you see is not really inside.”

It still remains to be seen if Mourinho has truly lost either the plot or the dressing room in what is rapidly becoming yet another third-year death spiral for “The Special One.” The bigger issue for United is if the latter is the case, the only person who can conceivably come in and salvage this team this season is Zinedine Zidane, who has been breathlessly rumoured to be the next in line should Mourinho’s act run its course this term.

Things were not helped earlier Tuesday when reports emerged Mourinho has also fallen out with Alexis Sanchez, who has scored just three goals in 21 matches across all competitions since his January arrival from Arsenal.

The Chilean international has just one assist in five league matches and was held out of United’s 3-0 win over Young Boys in United’s Champions League opener a fortnight ago. He was an unused substitute in the loss to Derby and not among the 18 at West Ham United.

While Sanchez is expendable to a degree because Anthony Martial can be plugged in on the left wing in United’s 4-3-3 formation, Pogba continues to be a must-play despite the issues between him and Mourinho.

Yet the good news for United — at the moment — is that there appears to be a clear line of demarcation in Group H between the haves and the have-nots as Mourinho’s team are still expected to progress along with Juventus. That puts the pressure on Valencia to somehow get a result from Old Trafford after Els Taronges opened their Champions League adventure with a 2-0 defeat to the Italian side.

Yet the Spanish side enter this contest with some momentum after finally posting their first victory in La Liga last weekend, a 1-0 triumph at Real Soceidad on Saturday. Kevin Gameiro accounted for the lone goal, continuing the offensive struggles of a team that has recorded draws in five of their seven league matches while scoring just five goals.

“We’re here with hope, because of the surroundings, the competition and the opponent. We go out to win every game, even if we know how difficult it will be to win here,” Rodrigo said at Monday’s news conference. “We competed well against Juventus, but didn’t manage to get over the line. Even so, we’ve come here to win, and we’ll be trying to go out feeling as good as possible and to grow as a team.”

It is possible some of the offensive struggles of late were due to Marcelinho serving a two-match ban after being sent off in their scoreless draw at Villarreal, but the team has been held off the scoresheet in four of their eight matches. Els Taronges have scored three of their five goals on the road, but they also have not scored in 378 minutes of Champions League play dating to their last appearance in 2015 when Gent’s Stefan Mitrovic scored an own goal that made the difference in Valencia’s 2-1 victory.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are still overwhelming favourites despite all the drama surrounding them, entering the match with 7/10 odds to take the full three points. The odds of the team splitting the points are 27/10, while Valencia are 4/1 longshots to pull off a shock scoreline and add some chaos to Group H.

Even with Valencia’s struggles, oddsmakers are counting on United to deliver some goals as a home win with more than 2.5 goals leads the options at 17/10 odds. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory follows with 3/1 odds, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw checks in at 18/5. For those who fancy the Spanish side emerging victorious, it is a 7/1 return on over 2.5 goals and 9/1 for under the mark.

Lukaku unsurprisingly leads the line for first goal-scorers at 3/1 odds, well clear of his wings Martial and Marcus Rashford, who are both 11/2 to make it 1-0 for United. Despite the reported fallout, Sanchez has 6/1 odds, and Pogba is always a viable selection as the penalty taker and gets 7/1 odds for the first marker. On Valencia’s side, Rodrigo Moreno leads the way at 15/2, followed by Gameiro and Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi — both of whom are 8/1.

Lukaku is almost even money to find the back of the net at some point during the match with 21/20 odds, with Rashford (15/8) edging out Martial (2/1) for second. Sanchez is a surprising 2/1 while Pogba lurks close behind him at 23/10 and Juan Mata has 5/2 odds. For Els Taronges, Moreno (13/5) edges out Gameiro and Batshuayi (11/4) for the top option.

PREDICTION

Manchester United need to make the pressure go away, and the only way that happens — for the time being at least — is with a victory in this game. A third successive loss on the bounce to teams all of lesser quality when compared to what Mourinho has regardless of his criticisms may be too much water for the ship to take on.

The Red Devils looked listless at West Ham, and perhaps more ominously, it looked like Mourinho was outcoached by counterpart Manuel Pellegrini as United lacked answers after falling behind. This match should be different because Valencia have lacked any and all offence for much of the young season — they have not scored more than two goals in any match.

Yet Rodrigo and Batshuayi could provide problems for a back four that still appear fragile at times, especially with the central partnership of Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling. While it would no be surprising to see Fellaini as the shield in front of them, this may be a case where Matic may be the better call to be that holding midfielder while Pogba and Fred push forward.

For all the doom and gloom around United, they are not a bad side. There is quality throughout the pitch, and that doesn’t even factor in keeper David De Gea, arguably the best shot-stopper in the Premier League and perhaps Europe. It is a matter of everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, and that can only start with a victory — one United will likely graft to here.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER UNITED 1, Valencia 0.

 

Champions League Match Day 1 preview — Young Boys vs. Manchester United

Welcome to the Champions League, kid, now go take down Goliath.

Swiss side Young Boys make their debut in group stage proper of Europe’s most prestigious club tournament Wednesday when they host one of its most storied sides in three-time champions Manchester United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Young Boys ended the eight-year reign of FC Basel atop the Swiss Super League last season, but getting to this point was not guaranteed since they still had to navigate the qualifying rounds. They accomplished that in dramatic fashion against Dinamo Zagreb last month, overturning a 1-0 deficit in the second leg in Croatia on a brace by Guillaume Hourau. His penalty in the 66th minute — two minutes after he leveled the match — was enough to send Young Boys through 3-2 on aggregate and onto Europe’s biggest stage.

The victory exorcised the demons of their 2010 failure in that round, when Young Boys had stormed out to a 3-0 lead versus Tottenham Hotspur inside the first half-hour of the first leg, only to concede twice and then get roundly beaten 4-0 at White Hart Lane in the return encounter. It was also all the sweeter after missing out last season in the same round, losing to CSKA Moscow, before running away to win the Swiss Super League with four matches to spare.

The 34-year-old Hourau has emerged as an unlikely talisman of this time, a one-time PSG reject with five caps for France whose career was rejuvenated when he joined the Swiss outfit in 2014. Hourau has scored 86 goals in league and European play and is off to a fast start once again with four goals in helping Young Boys claim the maximum 18 points through their first six matches.

“Guillaume is not only the best striker, but the soul and the leader of the team,” RTS commentator David Lemos told ESPN FC. “He is clever, funny off the pitch, and decisive on it. People in Bern absolutely love him.”

First-year coach Gerardo Seoane has largely left the philosophy of predecessor Adi Hutter in place as Young Boys use a high pressing style. They have scored 19 goals in league play while conceding four and recorded four clean sheets. Christian Fassnacht had a brace in the most recent contest, a 3-0 victory at FC Sion on Sept. 1 that was also their first shutout in three matches.

Manchester United appear beyond the doldrums that plagued them early on. They have won back-to-back matches on the road and ended Watford’s 100 percent run with a 2-1 victory at Vicarage Road in their last league contest Saturday.

Romelu Lukaku and defender Chris Smalling scored three minutes apart late in the first half when the hosts afforded them too much respect, and United then saw off a spirited challenge from the upstarts as they hunted an equaliser for nearly a half-hour and played the final minutes with a man advantage after Nemanja Matic was sent off for his second booking.

United played that match without attacking winger Marcus Rashford, who served the first of a three-match ban for violent conduct in their win over Burnley. Jose Mourinho did not guarantee Rashford a spot in the starting XI, but given he has the most energy to burn since he will sit out this weekend’s contest at Wolverhampton, it would not be a stretch to see him on the pitch from the opening kick.

“He’s selected for the game,” Mourinho said Tuesday of Rashford while still showing a little of the salt from the previous week when he defended his use of the England international. “But I just want to remind you, in advance, that we can only start with XI. So when tomorrow you see the team you could try to speak about the ones that are going to play and don’t critique the ones that are not going to play.

“So we have Lukaku, Rashford, Mata, Alexis, Martial and they can not play all together. So try to be a little bit happy with the ones that are playing and not to be greedy with the ones that are not playing.”

Luke Shaw is expected to be back in the starting lineup after sitting out the win over Watford following a concussion suffered on international duty for England in their Nations League loss to Spain. Antonio Valencia, however, did not make the trip since Mourinho did not want to expose the veteran full back to Young Boys’ synthetic pitch and will opt for either Ashley Young or Diogo Dalot, the latter of whom has yet to feature for the senior side.

Despite this being a debut for Young Boys, United would like to forget some of their previous trips to Switzerland. Basel proved a bogey ground on the last two visits to St. Jakob-Park, including last season’s 1-0 defeat in group play, but it is United’s 2-1 loss in 2011 that is recalled far more vividly in Switzerland as it allowed Basel to progress into the knockout round at United’s expense.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are decisive 8/11 favourites to return home with three points and their third win on the trot. A draw is preferred at 27/10 slightly more than a Young Boys upset victory, which is listed at 15/4 odds.

With relation to the 2.5 over/under goals standard, United are 8/5 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored and fetch a 13/4 return on a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. A scoreless or 1-1 draw has 19/5 odds, while a Young Boys win and over 2.5 goals has 13/2 odds compared to a 1-0 or 2-0 victory at 9/1.

Lukaku is an expected front-runner for first-goal honours at 7/2, trailed by Rashford (9/2) and Alexis Sanchez (5/1). Hoarau cracks the top five overall, tied with Martial at 6/1 and edging out Jesse Lingard (13/2) and Paul Pogba (7/1), whose two goals in league play have come from the penalty spot.

United’s attacking trio are also the top three options for a goal at any time during the match, with Lukaku leading the way at 5/4, Rashford checking in at 6/4 and Sanchez bringing up the rear at 7/4. Hoarau is a 2/1 bet to prevent David De Gea from posting his 14th career Champions League clean sheet.

PREDICTION

Another match, another chance for the aura of Manchester United to render an opponent helpless for a pivotal stretch in which they can take control of the match. This sounds a little passive-aggressive, sure, but for all the hope neutrals had last weekend in hoping Watford would come out from the get-go and take it to United, the wiles of Mourinho and his men proved too much as they played a ruthless road match.

That pattern should play out here, with United trying to stretch Young Boys all over the pitch when against the high press of the Swiss side. Young Boys keeper David Van Ballmoos does have European experience, but he did not notch his first win in continental play until last month in his 11th such match.

There is much talk about the synthetic turf, though most of it comes after the match when both players and managers are complaining about the knock-on soreness following 90 minutes of running on it. United are the fourth Premier League team to be making the trip to Bern this decade, joining Spurs, Everton and Liverpool, and of the three, only the Lilywhites made the trek back to England empty-handed.

Recent history will allow Mourinho to remind his players not to take their opponents for granted, but as it pertains to United, they appear to be a team rounding the corner. A road sweep of three opponents would be another step in getting themselves in position to make a charge up the table.

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

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 1 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City vs. Lyon

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 5 Preview — Watford (4-0-0) vs. Manchester United (2-0-2)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at the STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match for this website.)

The surprise package of the first four matches, Watford put their 100 percent record on the line Saturday at Vicarage Road as they try to move nine points clear of Manchester United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Hornets (4-0-0) are enjoying the high life at the moment, trailing only evergreens Liverpool and Chelsea in the table with the maximum 12 points. Manager Javi Gracia has gotten his team to buy into his 4-2-2-2 formation, with Roberto Pereyra a revelation on the left wing replacing the departed Richarlison and keeper Ben Foster making the most of his second go-round with Watford.

One of the underrated parts to Watford’s success is their ability to build a deep squad that is able to run a two-track course with league and cup responsibilities. Watford have won all five of their matches overall and overturned their entire XI in their Carabao Cup win at Reading.

Gracia was named Premier League Manager of the Month, and the Spaniard has instilled confidence his team can claim another high-profile pelt after rallying to defeat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 before the international break on goals by Troy Deeney and Craig Cathcart set up by Jose Holebas seven minutes apart in the second half.

“In this moment the results help us to feel we can do it, but it’s only a feeling because you have to do many things to win,” Gracia told Watford’s official website as they seek a club-record fifth consecutive home win in the top flight. “We need to manage situations, we need to play well, run a lot and fight a lot. After that we can have some options to win. We try to prepare as good as possible.”

Pereyra has a team-high three goals and Holebas leads the way with four assists. The Hornets have scored at least two goals in all five of their victories. Gracia is expected to stick with the same XI he has used in all four of his league matches, with Deeney and Andre Gray leading the line ahead of wingers Pereyra and Will Hughes.

“We are in a good moment, we are enjoying it, we know in the future things may change but this is a good moment for us,” Gracia added. “I prefer not to speak about if it’s the fifth game in a row, the sixth or the fourth – it’s the next one, the new one and the chance to get three points. The past is the past. I prefer to focus on the next game and the next three points.”

Getting three points has been challenging at times for Manchester United (2-0-2), who have been plagued by inconsistency and injuries at various positions across the pitch. They avoided a third consecutive loss before the international break with a comprehensive 2-0 victory at Burnley that relieved some of the crisis mode surrounding Jose Mourinho and the side, but the truth remains United have much heavy lifting to do to get back into the Premier League race.

The next challenge for Mourinho comes at left back, where Luke Shaw is not likely to play after suffering a concussion playing for England in their Nations League opener versus Spain. Shaw, who had been a whipping boy for Mourinho since his arrival from Southampton, had gotten into the manager’s good graces with a roaring start in being named the club’s player of the month.

United do have options if Shaw is not cleared to play, with one possibility being teenager and summer signing Diogo Dalot making his league debut. Dalot, a £19 million transfer from Porto, had his first action of the season with United’s Under-23 side earlier this week after recovering from an injury suffered last season.

“It was nice, the atmosphere was good, I can imagine if the stadium is full and I am very happy to come back,” Dalot told United’s official website. “It feels good to be back. It was a special night, getting my first minutes after four long months and I am really happy. It is a really special moment for me. I just want to take this opportunity to thank the amazing medical department and the coach, who has believed in me since day one.”

If Mourinho wants a veteran presence, he could opt for Marcos Rojo as the Argentina international has worked his way back into match shape recovering from injuries.

Marouane Fellaini is questionable for the match with a back injury that forced him to withdraw from Belgium’s Nations League matches. The towering midfielder was an influential figure in the win over Burnley in his first start of the season.

One player who will not be available is attacking winger Marcus Rashford, who will serve the first of his three-match ban for his headbutt of Phil Bardsley in the win over Burnley. His absence could be filled by Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata or Anthony Martial as Mourinho prepares for a busy stretch of schedule in which United play five matches across three competitions.

Rashford, though, will be available for United’s Champions League opener against Swiss side Young Boys on Wednesday.

United did the double over Watford last season, including a 4-2 victory in the corresponding fixture. Ashley Young scored twice in a six-minute span of the first half, and Martial made it 3-0 just after the half-hour. Manchester United are 9-0-1 in league matches against the Hornets, with the lone loss a 3-1 defeat at Vicarage Road in 2016.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are solid favourites with 10/11 odds, and Watford will give a 3/1 return if they continue their 100 percent start. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 12/5.

United get a 21/10 return to win with more than 2.5 goals and 16/5 odds to win by a 1-0 or 2-0 count. There are also 13/4 odds of a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, while Watford have 6/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals and 7/1 under 2.5.

Lukaku is the favourite to make it 1-0 at 4/1 odds, with Sanchez hot on his heels at 5/1. Martial is third at 13/2, with Lingard close behind at 7/1. Deeney is the top Watford option at 15/2, followed by Gray at 8/1. Despite his three goals, Pereyra is listed at 11/1 to open the scoring.

Pereyra’s odds for a goal at any time in the match improve to 7/2, while Lukaku nets a 6/4 return. Sanchez has 9/2 odds to bag his first goal of the season for United, with Paul Pogba and Juan Mata receiving 13/5 odds. Deeney is also listed at 13/5 to beat David De Gea at some point.

PREDICTION

Do you know how I know it was a good week of practice for Manchester United? Mourinho was railing about all the questions surrounding Rashford, who isn’t even playing as he serves the first of this three-match ban for his red card against Burnley. In some ways, that win came at the worst time for United since it was clearly their better victory of the two they have.

Replacing Shaw — provided he is not cleared to play — will provide some obvious talking points, more so if Dalot does not make his debut after playing for the Under-23 side, but this is where United must kick on and get on with their season. They cannot afford to lose this game and be nine points behind Liverpool and seven points behind their eternal rivals across town (note: this space is not entirely sold on Chelsea, but a nine-point deficit would be inconvenient) given how the league is again quickly turning into a top 7/bottom 13 league once more.

And all this is not designed to give short shrift to Watford. The Hornets deserve their status as flavour of the month given their start, with Gracia doing excellent work. Watford have a track record of starting fast before fading in recent seasons, and either avoiding or enduring through that difficult stretch is Gracia’s biggest challenge.

Despite their maximum record, the break after rallying past Spurs may have come at the perfect time for Watford because it allowed Gracia to teach as opposed to simply ride the momentum of a big win into the next match. Those lessons will be learned, and while a fifth league win on the trot may be too big an ask, a hard-earned draw feels like the most likely outcome.

Predicted Final Score: Watford 1, Manchester United 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Liverpool
Manchester City vs. Fulham
Newcastle United vs. Arsenal
Everton vs. West Ham United

2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview: Manchester United (0-0-0) vs. Leicester City (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

It is difficult enough for teams to open the season following a World Cup because rotations are out of sync due to player availability.

Add that to the usual third-season chaos Jose Mourinho has had at his previous coaching stops, and you have a recipe for combustion as Manchester United head into Friday night’s Premier League opener versus Leicester City at Old Trafford.

POTENTIAL STARTING LINEUPS

United (25-6-7 in 2017-18) finished distant runners-up to eternal rivals Manchester City, 19 points adrift despite their highest point total (81) in five seasons. It was the club’s best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson made his farewell with his 13th Premier League title in 2013, but there was no silverware for Mourinho after winning the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2017.

United – similar to other high-profile European clubs – had multiple first-team players participate in the World Cup this summer. Seven of the 11 players who went to Russia reached at least the semifinals.

Of those 11, Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones (England), David De Gea (Spain) and Victor Lindelof (Sweden) are expected to be available for this match. Nothing definitive has been offered regarding the status of Belgium teammates Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini and England duo Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard.

“Rashford will be in a better situation than (Tuesday),” Mourinho told MUTV on Tuesday. “Lindelof the same, Jones the same and let’s see if one of the others is ready to give us a help, 20-25 minutes. Any help that can come from them, is welcome.”

Midfielder Paul Pogba won the title with France, and while he will not play this match, things are tense between him and Mourinho. The United boss offered a backhanded compliment by saying the World Cup “is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give (their best),” to ESPN FC.

This was a pointed observation considering Mourinho spent last season trying to slot Pogba into the type of midfield partnership with Nemanja Matic that France manager Didier Deschamps successfully achieved with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

Mourinho made those comments while United toured the United States. He often cut a frustrated and angry figure between poor performances and the lack of first-team players available. He railed about both following a 4-1 loss to Liverpool in Michigan in which he told The Independent, “We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to belong on our squad on August 9 (the transfer deadline day). So what did this game give me? Nothing. Nothing at all.”

These comments could be one-time snipes and aggravations, but they also fit Mourinho’s track record when things go pear-shaped in season three. It happened in 2007 in his first stint with Chelsea after winning the Premier League title the season before. A falling out within the locker room with Real Madrid star players including Cristiano Ronaldo marked his third and final season at the Bernabeu in 2013.

And most recently, the third season during his second go-round at Chelsea – again after winning a Premier League title the season before – was so toxic another parting of the ways resulted after nine losses in the first 16 league matches in 2015-16.

But Mourinho is not in jeopardy. His frustration also stems from United chairman Ed Woodward’s failure to land many of the players Mourinho sought in this summer’s transfer window. That shortcoming is magnified by Thursday’s close of the England window compared to the FIFA calendar, which runs until the end of August.

United’s biggest signing was a £47 million transfer for midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, who missed out on playing for Brazil at the World Cup due to a knee injury suffered in the tournament run-up. Starlet Diogo Dalot came over from FC Porto with a £19 million price tag, but the 19-year-old will likely start the season behind Antonio Valencia at right back.

With both nursing injuries, though, it is expected Lindelof will get the start at right back. Jones provides depth in central defense in the event Eric Bailly is unable to go after picking up a knock, and Andreas Perreira slots into the defensive midfield role with Matic sidelined by injury.

One marquee player Mourinho will have is attacking winger Alexis Sanchez, who starts his first full season at Old Trafford after arriving from Arsenal in January. His industry will be vital in the early part of the season, especially until Lukaku is ready to return and lead the line.

While United’s star players will eventually return, Leicester City (12-11-15) move on without top playmaker Riyad Mahrez. The Algeria international made his long-sought jump to Manchester City, with the Foxes wrangling a £60 million transfer fee from the reigning champions after a deal fell through in January.

The jury remains out on manager Claude Puel despite guiding Leicester City to a top-half finish following the sacking of Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes won just five of their final 21 (5-6-10) league matches, and filling Mahrez’s role may require multiple players.

James Maddison is expected be first in line, but another option is Mahrez’s compatriot Rachid Ghezzal, who has been reunited with Puel from their Lyon days after a £12 million transfer from Ligue 1 side AS Monaco on Sunday.

“I know the coach and I know his work and I like it,” Ghezzal told Leicester City’s official website. “I want to be here. It’s a good club with many ambitions and many great players. I think I will make a great season.”

Two of those “great players” – defender Harry Maguire and striker Jamie Vardy – may not be available after playing for England. Maguire boosted his stock immensely in that run to the semifinals while in Russia, with Leicester City valuing the centre back at £65 million and rebuffing United’s advances.

Leicester City were active in the summer window, adding promising attacking midfielder Maddison from Norwich City and right back Ricardo Pereira – who played for Puel at Nice – from FC Porto for nearly £50 million combined. The Foxes added to their depth in central defense with veteran Jonny Evans from relegated West Bromwich Albion.

If Vardy – a 20-goal scorer last term – is unavailable, Puel has Kelechi Iheanacho to lead the line. He was on Nigeria’s roster for the World Cup, but fellow Super Eagle Ahmed Musa left for Saudi side Al-Nassr last Saturday. Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slamini remain options as a second striker for Puel.

This is the second straight season Leicester City are playing the league’s Friday night opener, having lost 4-3 at Arsenal in 2017-18. Manchester United are unbeaten in the last seven between the teams (4-3-0), though Maguire rescued a point for the 10-man Foxes with a stoppage-time equaliser that resulted in a 2-2 draw at King Power Stadium on Dec. 23.

United are unbeaten in their last nine (7-2-0) at Old Trafford versus Leicester City since a 1-0 defeat Jan. 31, 1998, and 15-7-2 in the Premier League era. The Red Devils are also 19-5-2 in Premier League home openers, losing only to Everton in 1992 and Swansea City in 2014.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are a solid favorite at 4/9 odds to win, while Leicester City check in at 6/1. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 3/1.

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Sanchez offers a good return at 10/3 odds as the first goal-scorer and 6/5 odds as anytime scorer, and his industry offers a good chance of the match’s first goal being scored on a defensive breakdown by Leicester City. That rates him as a better option than Rashford (7/2) and Juan Mata (11/2) among likely United starters for first goal-scorer.

The Chilean has four goals in six lifetime matches versus the Foxes but none in the last three since banging a hat trick in Arsenal’s 5-2 win at King Power Stadium in the 2015-16 season.

A potential parlay could be taking both teams to score (27/10) with a 2-1 Manchester United scoreline (15/2). While he is listed on the right flank of the 4-3-3, it would not be surprising to see Mata track back into the middle of the park to link with Fred and Herrera, giving Rashford the opportunity to use his pace to run at defenders and create scoring chances.

PREDICTION

Both sides are far from a finished product, but both defensive midfielders — Wilfred Ndidi for Leicester City and Andres Perreira — are both going to have to put in heavy shifts to put out fires in front of their back lines. Ndidi has grown into this role since the Foxes parted ways with Kante, while Andres Perreira has not had as many opportunities to do so since Matic stepped into the role last season.

Also of note is how Lindelof transitions to right back for this match after a summer of manning a centre back spot for Sweden if Valencia is unable to play. United will do well to work through Sanchez on the left as it serves the double effect of pinning back Ricardo Perreira on the right.

It seems likely both Lukaku and Vardy will be introduced as match-changers for the final half-hour depending on the scoreline, and it would not be surprising to see Maguire starting the match despite Puel’s claims the England duo will not be in the first XI. Given how last season’s lid-lifter was a chaotic seven-goal affair, there should be multiple goals and another win for the home side.

Prediction: Manchester United 2, Leicester City 1