2018-19 EPL Match Day 23 Preview — Manchester United (12-5-5) vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-10)

If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer keeps this up, Manchester United will have a very short coaching search since they won’t need to look outside Old Trafford.

The caretaker manager looks for his seventh win in as many matches since taking charge as United host Brighton and Hove Albion on the road Saturday.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

United’s first five matches with their former Norwegian striker in charge were a means of stabilising the storied franchise following the sacking of Jose Mourinho. The Red Devils took care of business with four league wins on the trot followed by an efficient FA Cup victory over Reading.

Last weekend’s match at Wembley versus Tottenham Hotspur was the first real referendum on Solskjaer’s coaching acumen, his counterpart Mauricio Pochettino also considered a potential suitor for the United job Solskjaer has openly stated he wants on a full-time basis.

And the Norwegian passed with flying colours as United (12-5-5) recorded a 1-0 victory over Spurs, moving within six points of the fourth and final Champions League spot while pulling level on points with Arsenal for fifth. Solskjaer opted to match Pochettino’s diamond in midfield with one of his own, using Jesse Lingard as a false nine to open up space behind Tottenham’s defence, which contributed to Marcus Rashford’s goal on 44 minutes.

“The manager told us that at the beginning of the game it would be difficult to make short passes,” midfielder Ander Herrera told United’s official website. “He told us that it would be easier for us to switch the play and to look – almost without looking – to the other side of the pitch to switch the ball, because that is where we were going to find spaces.

“We scored like that, so thank you to the game plan as well.”

In the second 45 minutes, the match belonged to David De Gea, who again rescued points for United with a standout performance. He finished with 11 saves, thwarting Spurs striker Harry Kane thrice and Dele Alli twice.

“Every one of them (my saves) was important for the team to help keep a clean sheet, to help the team to win so every save was important,” De Gea said. It was a tough game for every player, we were attacking well, we create chances and this is United.

“They (Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones) have been top too, but not just them, the whole team, we have to defend from the striker to the goalkeeper so it was a great performance in the defensive way and we need to keep this level, keep winning games and fight for the top four.”

Solskjaer became the first United manager to win his first six games in charge, bettering the mark established by Sir Matt Busby in the 1946-47 season. Once more he found the best in Pogba, whose 45-yard pass set up Rashford for his match-winner.

The World Cup winner has four goals and four assists since Solskjaer took over while Rashford has three goals in his last four matches and four since the managerial change.

Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-10) have a chance to complete their first double over Manchester United at any level since they recorded a 3-2 victory in the reverse fixture in August on first-half goals by Glenn Murray, Shane Duffy and Pascal Gross.

While United’s outlook has changed since the match. The Seagulls continue to be a stubborn outfit under Chris Hughton and had their four-match unbeaten run in all competitions end with a tough 1-0 loss at home to Liverpool last weekend.

Gross committed the foul on Mohamed Salah that led to the match’s only goal on 50 minutes, a bitter result for a Brighton side that played well and compact despite ceding nearly 70 percent position to the Premier League leaders. The effort has also provided hope among Albion they can grab a result at the Theatre of Dreams.

“Liverpool and Manchester United are the matches which are special in the Premier League, and you have important matches against top teams all the time,” defender Martin Montoya told the club’s official website. “I can see the team is growing since the start of the season, as we look more solid, physically stronger, and better individually.

“We are improving and at Manchester we will go out giving it our all to get a result.”

Brighton will also be sporting a different look compared to the first meeting, with Hughton using a 4-3-3 that will look more like a 4-5-1 formation with the expectation United will see a lion’s share of the possession. The move has most benefitted Jurgen Locadia, who had two goals and an assist in the four matches before the setback to Liverpool.

Also different will be the goalkeeper as David Button continues between the sticks while first-choice keeper Mathew Ryan plays for Australia in the Asian Cup. Button has helped Albion claim four points in his three league starts and recorded a clean sheet versus Everton.

In 10 trips to Old Trafford spanning 110 years, the Seagulls have just two draws to their credit – a 2-2 draw in the 1981 FA Cup and a 1-1 deadlock in the First Division in the 1982-83 season.

Manchester United have recorded four consecutive clean sheets at home versus Albion since that draw, with the lone league contest a 1-0 victory last term on an own goal by Seagulls defender Lewis Dunk. Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic provided the offence in the most recent contest there in the FA Cup quarterfinals last March.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United are firm 3/10 favourites to make it seven wins on the spin since Solskjaer took over, and Brighton are 11/1 underdogs to pull off the double. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 19/4.

Despite a five-goal outburst in the first meeting, oddsmakers aren’t overly convinced this will be a high-scoring affair, offering 8/11 action on over 2.5 goals compared to 11/10 for under. There are also 4/6 odds on at least one clean sheet compared to 11/10 that both teams will score.

Despite the likelihood he will be coming off the bench once more, Lukaku is still the top choice for first goal-scorers at 11/4. He is followed by Anthony Martial (4/1), Alexis Sanchez (9/2), and the in-form duo of Pogba and Rashford — who are both 5/1. Lingard is a 13/2 option, while Murray is the top pick for Brighton at 10/1 to make it 0-1.

Lukaku is the only player with better than even money odds to score over the course of 90 minutes at 8/11, with Martial just off that line at 11/10. Sanchez is a 5/4 pick while Pogba and Rashford are again linked together at 7/5. Juan Mata has 12/5 odds to pick up a goal, while Murray is a 3/1 option. Seagulls teammate Florian Andone checks in at 9/2, and Locadia is another step back at 5/1.

PREDICTION

Solskjaer has passed every test thrown at him through these first six matches with flying colours, and this contest presents a new one: can United avoid a letdown after a big result? Additionally, this has the feel of a “trap game” considering their next contest is a mouth-watering fourth-round FA Cup tie at the Emirates versus Arsenal that will undoubtedly turn into a “who’s doing better among new managers” debate for the run-up.

Still, United continue to make up ground in a push for a top-four spot, and a win here ahead of that contest with Arsenal — United trail the Gunners by just two in goal difference — would send a message to the north London side they are not going away any time soon.

Right now, Pogba and Rashford are carrying United’s offence, but the other key component of United’s success is continuity. Solskjaer has settled on a first XI and substitution patterns that promote consistency in the side, and he has been rewarded by both starters and reserves — evidenced by their win at Newcastle.

Albion are not far off from the top half of the table, and for a side who have taken just four points off the Big Six, they have proven difficult to break down. Four of their five losses against those teams have come by one loss, and the worst of them was a 2-0 setback to Manchester City. Hughton’s squad may lack a consistent offence — but they are well-drilled and disciplined.

With the likelihood Albion will have nine behind the ball for this match as their 4-3-3 retreats into a 4-5-1, it means the dirty work will fall to fullbacks Luke Shaw and Ashley Young to pump crosses into the box to create some chaos and get a greasy goal for some separation.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 2, Brighton and Hove Albion 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 23 PREVIEWS:

Wolverhampton (8-5-9) vs. Leicester City (9-4-9)
Liverpool (18-3-1) vs. Crystal Palace (6-4-12)
Southampton (4-7-11) vs. Everton (8-6-8)
Arsenal (12-5-5) vs. Chelsea (14-5-3)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

The first real measuring test of how far Manchester United have progressed under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally arrives Sunday when they face Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Solskjaer has won all five of his matches in charge since the sacking of Jose Mourinho, but the opponents United (11-5-5) have faced have been, to use boxing parlance, tomato cans.

Three of the four league wins came against relegation threatened sides – Cardiff City, Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United. The fourth versus a Bournemouth team who take little more than a passing interest in defence.

The Red Devils maintained their 100 percent record under the former Norse striker with a 2-0 victory over Championship side Reading in a third-round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford on Saturday. Solskjaer was able to overturn nine of his starters from a 2-0 win over Newcastle, keeping centre back Phil Jones and midfielder Juan Mata.

Mata opened the scoring on 22 minutes with a penalty after he earned the foul, and Romelu Lukaku scored in first-half stoppage time for his third goal in as many matches since returning from compassionate leave. With the increased confidence in attack – and with good reason since United’s 16 goals since Solskjaer took over match the total from their previous 10 matches in all competitions – the interim boss has promised to try and stay on the front foot for this contest.

“You all know the best teams in the league and of course we have to be aware of their strengths. But I’ve been brought up in a way that we need to attack teams,” he told the club’s official website. “I think that’s our strength as well, going forward and attacking, as a team when you look at us now the way we’ve played.

“We’re not going to get as many chances to attack against these (Spurs) as we’ve had before, so we’ve got to be ready for when we get hold of the ball and play well with it to make sure we use the whole pitch because Wembley is a decent-sized pitch as well.”

Solskjaer confirmed in-form and rejuvenated midfielder Paul Pogba will be available for this match after spending last weekend in the Middle East receiving treatment for a knock suffered against Newcastle, but centre back Marcos Rojo is in his native Argentina receiving treatment for his injury.

Most of the starting XI from the Newcastle match will likely be restored in this encounter, with the centre back pairing of Jones and Victor Lindelof all but certain since Eric Bailly will complete a three-match ban for his straight red card given in the win over Bournemouth.

The lone sticking point is whether Lukaku’s form warrants his first league start since Solskjaer took over. In the current 4-2-3-1 set-up Solskjaer prefers, Lukaku would likely lead the line and push Marcus Rashford onto the right wing, perhaps at the expense of Jesse Lingard.

For Spurs (16-0-5), this is a huge match on many levels. Manchester City’s win over Liverpool also resulted in the north London side getting a lifeline back into the Premier League race as they are now six points behind the table-topping Reds and two back of the reigning champions for second.

It also marks the first opportunity for the Lilywhites to do the double over United since the 1999-2000 season, a chance squandered with a 3-1 loss at Old Trafford in May 2000. Tottenham have not accomplished the feat since the First Division days in 1989-90, but having emphatically thumped United 3-0 in the reverse fixture in August in Manchester to exorcise some of those demons, this is a prime chance for Tottenham show they can handle prosperity and not be “so Spursy.”

Tottenham put some of that talk to rest Tuesday with a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal. Harry Kane’s penalty on 27 minutes separated the sides and made him the first player in club history to score 20 or more goals in all competitions in five straight seasons.

“We’re in a good stage, we’re in a semi-final (Carabao Cup) with a 1-0 lead, we’re in the FA Cup and Champions League and we’re not too far off in the Premier League, although there is a long way to go,” Kane told SkySports. “So far, so good, but it’s this stage of the season that we have just fallen behind in the past so it is important this year that we step it up, work even harder and go into these games and try and bring it home.”

Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino downplayed talk of how different this match would be compared to the victory in August, in which Lucas Moura had a brace after Kane opened the scoring with a professional header on 50 minutes off a corner from Kieran Trippier. Instead, the Argentine is expecting a typically tough contest from the fellow perennials.

“It’s going to be a very nice game. Always Tottenham vs Manchester, Manchester vs Tottenham, every time that we play are always exciting, very competitive games,” he said. “Of course this Sunday it will be a very nice game to watch. It will be tough, I think Manchester United arrive in a very good level, with very good momentum.”

This match provided yet another opportunity to link Pochettino with the United job, a position he has yet to offer a definitive answer regarding his interest. This time, though, the question was regarding Solskjaer’s motivation to win this match given he has already come out and said he wants to be the full-time manager of United.

“Of course when you’re a manager or coach you cannot be focused on all the rumours. The most important thing is the motivation that we have to do our job in our best way,” Pochettino said during his Friday press conference. “Of course Manchester is going to come on Sunday trying to win. Of course for him it’s a massive motivation or challenge to manage Manchester United, like for me it’s a massive challenge to be in front for this football club, Tottenham.”

Pochettino does have some selection concerns with the availability of centre back Jan Vertonghen uncertain. The Spurs boss does not lack for options at the position to partner with Toby Alderweireld – whom Mourinho coveted for United this summer – but if Vertonghen cannot pair with his Belgian compatriot, Davinson Sanchez is expected to continue in the role.

This will be the final match for winger Heung-Min Son in the short term, as the South Korea international will join his compatriots for the Asian Cup. Spurs and South Korea worked out an arrangement in which Son would join them after this match, something that has been a massive benefit for Spurs as Son has been in blistering form with seven goals and five assists in his last six matches.

Tottenham are unbeaten in their last six league matches versus United (3-3-0), winning the last three on the trot. United, though, did beat Spurs 2-1 in the last meeting at Wembley in April in the FA Cup semifinals, getting goals from Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera to offset an early strike from Dele Alli.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Spurs are 11/10 favourites to complete their first league double over United in 29 seasons, while United are 13/5 underdogs to maintain their 100 percent mark under Solskjaer. The odds of the sides splitting the points are just behind that at 27/10.

Oddsmakers are expecting another match over 2.5 goals between the clubs, with 8/13 odds compared to 13/10 for under that threshold. They also expect both teams to score in this match, with 8/15 odds United and the Lilywhites bag at least one goal compared to 11/8 odds either David De Gea or Hugo Lloris record a clean sheet.

Kane, not surprisingly, leads the list of first goal-scorers at 3/1, with understudy Fernando Llorente second at 9/2. Perhaps surprisingly, Lukaku rounds out the top three at 5/1, with Moura (6/1) and the in-form Son (13/2) just off that pace. United wingers Anthony Martial (7/1) and Alexis Sanchez (8/1) are next, followed by Alli (8/1) and then a quartet of players at 17/2 — Rashford and Pogba for United, Eriksen and Lamela for Spurs.

For goal-scorers over the course of 90 minutes, Kane is better than even money at 8/11, while Lukaku is the reverse at 11/8. In between is Llorente at 6/5. Moura is 13/8, with Son offering a slightly appealing return at 15/8. Martial is next at 2/1, with Sanchez and Alli again joined together, this time at 9/4.

As United’s usual penalty taker, Pogba is a 5/2 option, level with Rashford, Lamela, and Eriksen.

PREDICTION

After five matches, the first clues of what United are going to be all about for the next five months will start being offered with this match. On the bright side, Solskjaer has done everything he should have done with this stretch of schedule: instill a can-do attitude in the offence, have them pour forward and let their attacking talents speak for themselves.

Pogba has been at the heart of this renaissance, finally free to be the attacking midfielder he wants to be with Matic and Herrera providing cover behind him. He is not lacking defensive responsibility, it is just easier to have him in a support role doing so as opposed to counting on him to be the guy who makes those plays Matic and Herrera make consistently.

While it’s fair to say there is pressure on Tottenham in this match, they have done a good job answering to the self-administered pressure they put on themselves as opposed to what the outside world puts on them. Yes, the Wolves loss was “so Spursy,” but on other occasions — most notably their final three Champions League ties and Tuesday’s match against Chelsea — Pochettino’s men have emphatically answered the bell.

United have yet to get punched in the mouth under Solskjaer. No one knows that United are like under him when they trail because they have yet to trail since he has taken over. In fact, there has been only one match in the five they did not lead after the first half-hour.

No one has forced Solskjaer to alter his tactics since arriving at Old Trafford, and how Spurs play this game — especially if Pochettino throws the diamond midfield at them — wil be the first offerings of the Norwegian’s tactical acumen.

Given that Spurs have recorded three consecutive clean sheets, the hedge is the central pairing of Alderweireld and Sanchez remain for this contest.

United’s attack has done well to camouflage their one primary weakness — the back four. Yes they have their first-choice central pairing together because no one else is available, but Lindelof and Jones are not going to get much help if Son Kane, Alli, Moura and Eriksen are all running circles around Matic and Herrera like they were practice cones.

There is little need to go wide on United when you can overflow the middle and force Jones and Lindelof into making decisions. Alli could wind up making the biggest impact of all if he is able to carry to the top of the penalty area.

It is time for Spurs to stand up and be counted. And the expectation is they do just that at Wembley to keep it a three-team race.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Manchester United 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

The sudden juggernaut who are Manchester United attempt to make it four wins in four under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday when they face Newcastle United at St James’ Park.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Solskjaer, best remembered as the striker who capped United’s historic treble with his dramatic stoppage-time winner versus Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, has breathed new life into what was a moribund United (10-5-5) since his arrival on loan from Norwegian side Molde.

The Red Devils have totaled 12 goals in his three matches in charge, with an emphasis on going forward with Paul Pogba in a more advanced role in midfield. The France international and World Cup winner has factored in seven of the goals scoring four and assisting on three after recording his second consecutive brace in Sunday’s 4-1 romp past Bournemouth.

One of the more notable differences under Solskjaer is Pogba finding his way into the penalty area, a sign of trust from the new manager and also a sign the defence in midfield is in capable hands with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera.

Marcus Rashford contributed a goal and an assist, and in his first appearance for United under Solskjaer after returning from compassion leave, Romelu Lukaku capped the scoring on 72 minutes almost straightaway after his introduction for Rashford.

United are almost at full strength in attack, with Alexis Sanchez expected to be included for the first time since a reserve appearance against Crystal Palace on Nov. 24. The Chile international, who was sidelined with a hamstring injury in addition to reportedly falling out of favour with since-sacked Jose Mourinho, has just three goals in 22 league matches since joining United from Arsenal last January.

“Alexis has had some great training sessions over the last few days and wanted to be here (against Bournemouth) as well but we’ve had to manage him,” explained Solskjaer to the club’s official website. “He’s been out for a month. He will be involved (at Newcastle), yes. He wants to play all the time, he’s one of those characters. He made himself available but I think it was a few days too early for him. He’s not had enough fitness work but he is champing at the bit.

“I think Alexis is a player that would benefit from the interchanging, rotation and movements and, of course, more chances. If we create more chances and get the ball in the final third, he will be an asset for us.”

Solksjaer will be forced into one change from Sunday’s XI as Eric Bailly will begin serving his three-match ban for a reckless challenge on Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser. Phil Jones is expected to pair with Victor Lindelof in central defence, with Matteo Darmian on standby since Chris Smalling and Marcus Rojo are sidelined through injury.

There has only been light speculation over United’s doings in the upcoming transfer window, though the club has been linked to 19-year-old Ajax centre back Matthis de Ligt. Prior to his dismissal, Mourinho had been adamant about acquiring another central defender, but club chairman Ed Woodward rebuffed Mourinho’s want of Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld.

As Manchester United appear to have found themselves, Newcastle United (4-6-10) continue to scrap for any and all points in a bid to avoid the drop. The Magpies dropped two crucial points Saturday at Watford when they were pegged back for a 1-1 draw courtesy a late Hornets goal by Abdoulaye Doucoure eight minutes from time.

Salomon Rondon, who was rested Boxing Day when the Magpies took a 4-0 hiding from Arsenal, staked Newcastle to the lead just before the half-hour with his third goal in the last five matches he has played. The Venezuela international has scored or assisted on Newcastle’s last four goals spanning the club’s last seven matches and has accounted for five of their 15 goals in league play.

The impending transfer window will likely provide more friction between Benitez and embattled owner Mike Ashley, who is again reportedly close to selling the club. The Spaniard has spent nearly every window publicly beseeching Ashley to open the purse strings in post-match press conferences, only to have the amount fall short of what he desires or not seen at all.

With a contract that expires in May and no new offer to extend Benitez’s deal – much to the chagrin of club supporters who are firmly in the Spaniard’s camp – the gaffer gave the sound of a man whose loyalty is being tested despite sticking with them to win the Championship and earn promotion back to the Premier League in 2017.

“I think our fans are quite clever,” he told the Chronicle Live. “I decided to stay when I came here, and I thought we could save the team, but we couldn’t. I then decided to stay in the Championship, so they know about my past, about my history.

“They appreciate that, and then we won, which is football. Even if you have a good CV, you still have to win.”

Winning at home is something Newcastle have not done much of this term. The Magpies are just 2-1-7 at St James’ Park, totaling only seven goals while shipping 15. They also have six losses in as many matches to Big Six foes, with all but the defeat at Arsenal coming by one goal.

The loss to United at Old Trafford may have been the most painful one of the six as Newcastle roared to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes through Yoshinori Muto and Joselu, only to see Manchester United fight back in the final 20 minutes to win 3-2. Juan Mata and Anthony Martial scored in the 70th and 76th minutes, respectively, before Sanchez headed in his only goal of the season at the death.

Newcastle won last term’s corresponding fixture 1-0 courtesy of Matt Ritchie’s goal on 65 minutes but have won just six of 47 Premier League matches (6-14-27) between the sides.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester United’s renaissance has caught the attention of oddsmakers as they are 4/7 favourites to win their fourth match on the bounce. Newcastle United are 9/2 underdogs to deal Solskjaer his first loss since taking over, and there are 3/1 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Even with Newcastle’s expected defensive set-up for this encounter, the odds of there being more than 2.5 goals are 4/6 compared to 6/5 odds on a total under that mark. With United still shaky at times in the back coupled with Newcastle having scored twice in the reverse fixture, there are 7/10 odds on both teams getting at least one goal compared to 21/20 odds on a clean sheet in either direction.

After scoring on his return from compassion leave, Lukaku is a 4/1 pick to score the first goal of this match, followed by Anthony Martial (9/2). Pogba, Rashford and Alexis Sanchez are all 5/1 picks to create a 0-1 scoreline, with Jesse Lingard is a 15/2 pick. Unsurprisingly, Rondon leads the line for the Magpies at 17/2, with Joselu (9/1) and Perez (10/1) rounding out the top three for the hosts.

No one on United is better than even money to score, though Lukaku (11/10) and Martial (6/5) are fairly close. The trio of Pogba, Rashford and Sanchez are all 11/8 options, with Lingard tabbed at 11/5. For Newcastle, Rondon is a 5/2 pick, followed by Joselu (11/4) and Perez (3/1).

PREDICTIONS

Benitez has some interesting personnel and tactical decisions to make considering how Manchester United are nothing like the side Newcastle faced in October. For starters, will he go with a five-man back for the third straight match? Despite the heavy 4-0 scoreline at Anfield, the Magpies did not play all that badly and were eight minutes from a crucial three-point pickup at Watford last weekend.

Rondon missed the first match through injury, and his form makes him a virtual must-start given Newcastle’s lack of scoring options beyond him. The loss at Old Trafford was one of just three matches all season Benitez’s team has scored more than one goal, and they have yet to register three in any contest. If Rondon operates by his lonesome, how do Liverpool supply him? Will it be through the flanks with Kenedy and Perez, or will it be over the top, with Shelvey appearing to be finally over his thigh injury.

Newcastle tried — with much success — pumping balls up to keep the Red Devils’ back four pinned just above the box in the first encounter, and Manchester United contributed to Newcastle’s success with some abject defending. Bailly, who lasted just 19 minutes before being fish-hooked out by Mourinho, will not be at the centre of any controversy this time around as a spectator.

This will be the first real test of United’s offence given the lack of quality of both Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, and the lack of anything resembling a top-tier defence from injury-ravaged Bournemouth last time out. Though the expectation is for Martial to start, seeing Sanchez from the opening kickoff would not be a surprise. Both have the capacity to give Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin a miserable time on the left.

For all their new-found prowess in attack, United are still a work in progress on defence. The expectation is Newcastle will be content to try and hit on the counter — thus the less possession the Magpies have, the better off United’s back four are. If Diogo Dalot does get the rotational start over Ashley Young at right back, how he deals with both Kenedy and Ritchie — who is more of a wing player than a fullback — will be something to watch.

As all this goes on, the subplot of Benitez versus Ashley in the transfer window will heat up quickly if things go sideways in this contest. It borders on unseemly that the perception is Benitez seemingly begging for table scraps in terms of what Ashley is willing to spend, which of course is no guarantee that any funds are forthcoming.

Much of the core of this side is the one who won the Championship in 2016-17. Benitez completely overachieved with this squad into a top-half finish last term, something that said as much about the “Other 14” in the Premier League in terms of overall quality. That holds true again to a degree, though there is a more defined stratification that makes the bottom half of the table more compressed after the Big Six and the next four among Wolves, Watford, Leicester City and perhaps Everton when they’re in the mood.

Newcastle are walking a fine line right now, and while a one-goal loss would be both unsurprising and frustratingly acceptable to this suddenly rejuvenated Manchester United side in the grand scheme of Premier League survival, a defeat like the one at Anfield could potentially make January a miserable month for the Magpies.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 1, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 20 Preview — Manchester United (9-5-5) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-9)

The pleas to “Attack! Attack! Attack!” from the Stretford End have been answered, and the £90 million midfielder is finally more menacing than mercurial.

Manchester United look to make it three wins in three matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Sunday at Old Trafford, where they face a Bournemouth side struggling to find any sort of consistency on a match-to-match basis.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

“You don’t change anything in one week, but you change the mindset,” Solskjaer told United’s official website regarding what is different for a talented team that never got out of second gear under Mourinho. “I want my team to play in a certain way and I give them little pointers here and there. It’s a work in progress, that’s what it is. It’s going to take time as the players go from one manager and the details he wanted and I have a little bit of a tweak. It will improve as time goes on.”

Though it is too early to call United’s first two managers under Solskjaer a rebuke to his sacked predecessor, it is readily evident the players have quickly heeded the former United striker and Norway international’s instructions to pour forward in his 180 minutes on the touchline.

While Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town will not be confused with the class of the Premier League this term, Manchester United (9-5-5) did smash eight goals past the overwhelmed and relegation-threatened sides and recorded a 3-1 victory over the Bluebirds on Boxing Day.

Pogba, whose relationship with Mourinho could best be described as antagonistic and fractured, continued his fine play under his new boss with a second-half brace that marked his first goal since following up his missed penalty versus Everton on Oct. 28. Playing a more advanced role than under Mourinho, the France international and World Cup winner has factored on four of United’s eight goals.

“It was great to see him score two goals and he has created the goals last week at Cardiff, and now he scores them himself, so he will be even better for getting two lots of 90 minutes now and he will be fitter and fitter and improving with the team,” Solskjaer said regarding Pogba.

Also encouraging has been the play of Jesse Lingard, who has two goals and two assists in the last two matches. The England international appears to be finally over the fatigue hangover of helping the Three Lions reach the World Cup semifinals and gamely carving out playing time among a group of attackers close to 100 percent.

Two of those players – centre-forward Romelu Lukaku and winger Alexis Sanchez – may be available for selection since they have returned to training this week. Anthony Martial is also expected to be available after being a late scratch midweek with an illness. How Solskjaer incorporates Sanchez will be closely followed given the Chile international had fallen out of Mourinho’s good graces prior to his injury.

Through the first half of the season, Bournemouth (8-2-9) have ranged from irresistible to insipid with their play. It swung to the latter Boxing Day as Tottenham Hotspur ran riot in a 5-0 hiding of the Cherries at Wembley.

Eddie Howe’s team did not play all that poorly, but rather, they were caught in a thresher of Spurs’ dynamic offence that punished his side for every mistake. Adding injury to insult, Bournemouth lost right back and talisman Simon Francis for the remainder of the season with a ruptured ACL suffered late in the first half.

“It’s a huge blow for us, Simon, everyone connected with the club,” Howe said at his Friday news conference. “He’s been our leader on the pitch and a role model and a big miss in the dressing room. As a team it’s a big loss and a big gap to fill.

“He didn’t deserve that, but it’s happened and now we’ll do our best to support him through this process.”

Francis’ absence means Bournemouth – who have dropped eight of their last 10 in all competitions starting with a loss to United in the reverse fixture in early November — are without both first-choice wide backs as Adam Smith has also been sidelined by a knee injury. He joins midfielders Lewis Cook and Dan Gosling as long-term injury absentees, with Diego Rico the most likely candidate to step in at right back after doing so for the second half of Wednesday’s loss.

Amazingly, Bournemouth midfielder Jefferson Lerma is one caution from serving his second ban for yellow card accumulation, one that would carry a two-match suspension. The Colombia international accrued five yellow cards in the Cherries’ first 14 matches and has been booked in their last four league fixtures.

The Cherries have yet to find a successful formula for beating the Big Six. Their first go-round resulted in six losses while being outscored 18-3. Their best stretch of play in any of those matches came in the reverse fixture at Dean Court, where they nearly ran United off the pitch in the opening half-hour and took a deserved 1-0 lead through Callum Wilson on 11 minutes.

Bournemouth, though, could not sustain that momentum and came undone late as Marcus Rashford bundled home a stoppage-time winner for United. Martial scored the other goal in that contest as the Red Devils are looking to do the double over Bournemouth for the second straight season. United are unbeaten in the last six between the sides (5-1-0) since the Cherries pulled off a 2-1 upset in their first Premier League meeting back in 2015.

Bournemouth are 0-1-2 at Old Trafford since being promoted and have never won there in seven all-time trips (0-1-6).

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, United are strong 2/5 favourites to make it three wins in three under Solskjaer, while Bournemouth are 7/1 underdogs to end a nine-game skid to Big Six opponents dating back to last season. There are 17/4 odds on the sides splitting the points.

Both teams’ form in the opposite directions have created 8/15 odds on the teams surpassing 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds to finish under that mark. There are 4/6 odds both sides will score compared to 11/10 odds of a clean sheet in either direction.

Lukaku’s anticpated return has made him the frontrunner for first-goal honours at 15/4 odds, with Martial’s expected return putting him second at 4/1. Rashford and Pogba are joint-third at 5/1, with Lingard at 7/1. Wilson is Bournemouth’s top option at 8/1 to score the first goal in both matches between the clubs, with backup striker Jermain Defoe the second choice of the Cherries at 9/1.

Lukaku is 10/11 odds to score during the course of the match, and Martial is even money. Rashford and Pogba are both 5/4 options, and Lingard is a 15/8 selection. Wilson is an 11/5 pick for the Cherries, with Defoe a 5/2 pick and Joshua King an 11/2 offering.

PREDICTION

And just like that, all is good with Manchester United.

Well, not really. But things are certainly better during the holiday season since Solskjaer has arrive at Old Trafford. The most notable and obvious change under the former United striker has been to put Pogba in an advanced position in a 4-2-3-1 set-up while also serving the dual purpose of putting both Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera into a partnership in defensive midfield.

The back line is right now as close to a polished product as United have been all season, though the eventual transition from Ashley Young to Diogo Dalot is something that will have to be made in league and FA Cup play ahead as opposed to their Champions League showdown with PSG down the road.

The expected return of at least Martial for this match, with potentially both Lukaku and Sanchez coming off the bench will create pleasant selection headaches for Solskjaer in the coming matches, but right now Lingard is evolving into the player who showed flashes of brilliance this summer for England. If Pogba continues to thrive and be happy in his new role, there is still time for United to make a run at a top-four spot.

That will be difficult since it will require them overtaking both Arsenal and Chelsea, though they may be helped by the road United once traveled to get back to Champions League play themselves — winning the Europa League. But that’s also down the road.

Bournemouth have hit a crossroads in their season — they are obviously in no danger of relegation, but the hopes of being that best team outside the Big Six have taken a huge hit with Francis’ season-ending injury. The attractive football the Cherries like to play now has an added element of pressure as it is now more likely their wins will come by outscoring opponents as opposed to grinding them down.

There is much velvet to Bournemouth, but little steel inside that glove, especially in the spine as Lerma and Andrew Surman offer little protection for Nathan Ake and Steven Cook. That could be a large problem in this match as Pogba has been reinvigorated and Rashford can cause all sorts of headaches leading the line with his pace.

Bournemouth can take solace in the fact they were the better team against United for the first half-hour last month and arguably should have had more than one goal if not for the continued quality work of United keeper David De Gea. But if the Cherries are going to take even one point from this match, they must find a way to sustain that against a recharged United side, and that seems unlikely given the current form of both teams.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 4, Bournemouth 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 20 PREVIEWS:

Liverpool (16-3-0) vs. Arsenal (11-5-3)
Tottenham Hotspur (15-0-4) vs. Wolverhampton (7-5-7)
Watford (8-3-8) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-10)
Southampton (3-6-10) vs. Manchester City (14-2-3)