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

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

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 17 PREVIEWS:

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

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

Rotation is the watchword for Manchester United heading into their final Group H Champions League match Wednesday at Valencia as Jose Mourinho’s already-through side are content to hold their runners-up spot versus a Tarongues club who have already assured themselves passage to the Europa League.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Technically, Manchester United can finish atop Group H with a victory and a loss by Juventus, but since the Italian side are hosting Young Boys in their group finale, there is little belief the last-place Swiss club can pull off what would be the biggest shock of Champions League group play.

United come into this match in good spirits for a change, having properly walloped a last-place Fulham side 4-1 Saturday in their last Premier League match. Marcus Rashford continued his stellar run of playmaking, setting up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata in the first half-hour before adding a strike of his own on 82 minutes.

Ashley Young scored the other goal for the Red Devils, who are unbeaten in five (2-3-0) in all competitions and have lost just once in their last nine (5-3-1). Though there is nothing to play for, Mourinho has opted to bring just two academy players to Spain as he feels his senior players are deserving of playing time for this match.

“The kids won’t start the match. (James) Garner will be on the bench, and Mason (Greenwood) is the protection player, in case we have any injuries,” Mourinho said at his Tuesday news conference. “We have players that need to play; we have players that deserve to play so, in spite of leaving a few players in Manchester, we are going to play with a team only with players from the first team.”

One senior player getting the start will be Paul Pogba, who was an unused substitute versus Fulham and played just 15 minutes in the 2-2 draw versus Arsenal in the previous match. While things have been tense between manager and star throughout the season, Mourinho placed little expectations upon the France international for this match beyond a professional performance.

“I’m looking for him to play well, and to have a good impact in the game and in the team,” Mourinho said.  “[It will be] a team with many players that don’t have many miles in their legs, a team with some players that are not playing a lot.

“So I hope that people like Paul and a couple of others that are normally in the team, who have the number of miles that players need to be at that top level, I hope that they can have a good impact on the team.”

Mourinho will again have a makeshift backline of sorts as Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw did not practice, and Diogo Dalot — who responded well to the pressure of his first two Premier League starts — also is nursing an injury, as is Matteo Darmian. Centre back Victor Lindelof remains a longer-term absentee with a hamstring injury.

Up front, Anthony Martial also did not train Tuesday, and Alexis Sanchez is also sidelined with a hamstring injury. After back-to-back starts for the first time this season, Jesse Lingard will likely be among the reserves.

Valencia are also expected to be without a slew of first-choice starters with nothing at stake, as coach Marcelino already has an eye on his club’s league match against Eibar this weekend. The Tarongues are 15th in the La Liga table, just four points above the drop but also only six out of fifth place.

“I am as strong, convinced and excited as I was on my first day here, if not more. But obviously when you do not win you cannot be so happy, it would be irresponsible if there was no self-assessment. The word surrender is not in my vocabulary. I’m not going to give up,” Marcelino explained about his priorities for this match.

“This is a game we did not want to play, with hopes of qualifying over. Having sealed a place in the UEFA Europa League, and given our Liga situation, the priority has to be the match against Eibar [on Saturday]. At the same time, it’s a Champions League match and they are never meaningless.”

One change will be enforced as defender Jose Luis Gaya is out through suspension. Striker Kevin Gameiro and Jeison Murillo are not expected to play due to injuries, while Goncalo Guedes and Gabriel Paulista are also being held out ahead of league play.

Valencia have been starved offensively for goals in Champions League — the only team they have scored upon in their last eight matches was Young Boys in this term’s group play. Los Che have also lost four of their last six home matches in Champions League.

These teams are no strangers to Champions League play as this will be their eighth meeting. United are 2-5-0 in the previous seven, and goals have been at a premium throughout this rivalry. There have been just five goals combined in the last six matchups, with a scoreless draw on Match Day 2 at Old Trafford.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Valencia are slight 8/5 favourites to pull out a victory in this dead rubber, while United have 19/10 odds to claim all three points. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 12/5.

Given the teams played to a scoreless draw at Old Trafford coupled with there being nothing at stake, oddsmakers are split on whether there will be goals in this match. There are 10/11 odds on either side of the 2.5 goals threshold, with even money on at least one team recording a clean sheet compared to 3/4 odds on both teams scoring.

Continuing the split decisions up and down the toteboard for this match, Valencia’s Gameiro and Lukaku are joint-top options for the first goal-scorer at 11/2, with Martial and one-time Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi joint-third at 6/1. Santi Mina, who has two of Valencia’s four goals in group play, has 13/2 odds, edging out teammate Moreno Rodrigo and the United duo of Rashford and Pogba.

Gameiro and Lukaku also lead the line for any-time goal-scorers at 7/4, followed by Martial and Batshuayi at 2/1. Santi Mina is 21/10, trailed by the same Rodrigo, Rashford and Pogba trio — all of whom are 9/4. Valencia’s Manuel Goncalo Guedes has 11/4 odds, followed by Dani Parejo at 3/1 and Lingard at 10/3.

PREDICTION

If a tree falls at the Mestalla and no one scores a goal, did it really happen? There is little in the way of expectations for this match, though all eyes will be on Pogba as he gets his first start since United’s 2-2 draw at Southampton in which the France international was lifted before the hour. After that match, word got out regarding another disagreement, albeit a calm one, between Mourinho and Pogba.

That said, having Rashford on his side makes for an intriguing examination to see if the forward’s pace is something Pogba can use to help create offence. That McTominay and not Marouane Fellaini is expected to anchor the central midfield is an added layer of intrigue since McTominay has struggled for first-team playing time for most of the season.

It also would have been interesting to see Dalot play after his impressive showings at right back versus both Arsenal and Fulham. After such a dour reverse fixture, it would not be surprising if the sides played to another scoreless draw, but the hunch here is United have too much firepower to bring in the final half-hour for that scoreline to repeat itself.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Valencia 0, Manchester United 1.

OTHER UEFA Champions League Match Day 6 Previews:

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

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

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

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Manchester United 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 14 PREVIEWS:

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

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 3 Preview — Manchester United (1-1-0, 4, +3) vs. Juventus (2-0-0, 6, +5)

It has been nearly five years since the last time Cristiano Ronaldo faced his former team, eliminating Manchester United in the round of 16 in the Champions League with a goal at Old Trafford for Real Madrid.

Though the only thing at stake in Tuesday’s Group H clash in England is first place, interests of the football world and emotions for a newly minted Juventus version of Ronaldo are running high ahead of just his second contest at Old Trafford since leaving for the Bernabeu nearly a decade ago.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Ronaldo contributed to United’s prestige in his six seasons with Manchester United, winning three Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League trophy while rising to superstardom. But at Real Madrid, that superstardom became all-encompassing and omnipresent as he helped Los Blancos to two La Liga titles and four Champions League titles — including the last three.

His first season with Juventus has gotten off to a fairly strong start, though this will be just his second Champions League contest with the Bianconeri. Ronaldo was given a red card in Juve’s opening victory for apparently pulling the hair of Valencia defender Jeison Murillo last month and missed their 3-0 victory over Young Boys earlier this month. It was the first Champions League red card in 154 matches for Ronaldo, who has the all-time scoring mark in Europe’s top club competition with 120 goals.

“It is special for me to return to Manchester,” Ronaldo said at Monday’s news conference. “Here I have many memories of victories and affection, and in particular with Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom I send a big hug. He is a person who helped me so much.”

While some of the talk has been about Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, much of the news conference was dominated by an allegation of rape in the summer of 2009 while in the United States. The story came back into the spotlight a month ago following an investigative article by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and while Ronaldo did not directly address the allegations, he also struck a tone of defiance that implies he has been able to compartmentalize what takes place on the pitch and off it.

“We did the statement two weeks ago, if I’m not wrong,” Ronaldo said when pressed about the issue. “I am glad [about how it progresses]. Of course, I’m not going to lie in this situation, I’m very happy. My lawyers, they are confident and of course I am, too. The most important is I enjoy the football, I enjoy my life. The rest, I have people who take care of my life. Of course, the truth is always coming in the first position [eventually]. So, I’m good.”

It is hard to argue with him based on his recent performances for Juventus. The Portugal international has five goals and three assists in his last six Serie A matches and scored in Juve’s 1-1 tie versus Genoa on Saturday that marked the first time in nine matches they dropped points (8-1-0). The Bianconeri are the only unbeaten team in Serie A and are four points clear of Napoli through nine matches as they seek an eighth consecutive scudetto.

While Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic have taken care of the offence by scoring 13 of Juve’s 24 goals, Juve will be without centre-forward Mandzukic, who sprained his ankle in training and did not make the trip. Douglas Costa appears to be the most likely candidate to lead the line, though the Brasil international’s last Champions League goal came with Manchester United in the 2016-17 season.

Juve’s defence, meanwhile, have been their usual stingy selves, conceding just six goals in 11 matches across all competitions. That is even with the changing of the guard between the sticks from warhorse Gianluigi Buffon to Wojceich Szczesny, who has five clean sheets.

The Poland international has plenty of experience facing Manchester United from his days as the No. 1 with Arsenal, but he has not experienced too much success. Szczesny is 2-2-5 with two shutouts against United, but it also should be noted that eight of the 15 goals he has conceded in those matches came in an 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011.

Dybala was held out of the starting XI versus Genoa to nurse a knee injury, making a 20-minute cameo late, but had a hat trick in Juve’s win over Young Boys. The only other player in Juve’s regular rotation to not make the trip was midfielder Emre Can, who has been recovering from a thyroid problem.

Manchester United are still trying to find themselves, but some of the fight that has been lacking from the England powerhouse was on display in a 2-2 draw versus Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Always a charged atmosphere when manager Jose Mourinho returns to his former stomping grounds where he won three Premier League titles, United nearly escaped London with three points before a goal at the death by Ross Barkley relegated them to splitting them.

Anthony Martial accounted for both goals with a second-half brace, but it was the forward play of United in the second half that generated optimism for this contest. In some ways, it was similar to their 3-2 win over Newcastle United prior to the international break in which they overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes, but that fight needs to be present for all 90 minutes as opposed to just fits and spurts.

“I think the first half we just started slow,” United striker Romelu Lukaku said at Monday’s news conference. “No initiative on the ball and no movement. But then in the second half we did everything we said we wanted to do in the first half. We do it always in the second half and that’s why we come back to get great results. But now the key is to start games how we start them in the second half, and maintain it as much as we can.”

United’s win over Newcastle is their only one over the last six matches in all competitions (1-4-1), but they have more clean sheets in Champions League play (2) than domestically (1). Mourinho has injury concerns as wingers Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard have been ruled out of this match along with midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay.

The lack of bodies forced Mourinho to use a 4-2-3-1 formation against Chelsea, something that could be replicated in this match with Juan Mata as the more forward playmaker and Pogba as a holding one alongside Nemanja Matic.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are 29/20 favourites to leave Old Trafford with all three points and a stranglehold on the group. United are 2/1 underdogs to claim a victory and the group lead ahead of the return engagement in Turin, and the odds of the teams splitting the points and leaving Juve ahead on goal difference halfway through group play are 21/10.

Despite Juve being listed as favourites, the match result with the lowest odds is a low-scoring draw at 11/4. A Juventus win over 2.5 goals has 10/3 odds, while one under 2.5 goals is 19/5. Manchester United posting a win with more than 2.5 goals checks in at 19/4, while a low-scoring victory for the hosts is slightly longer at 9/2.

Ronaldo is the oddsmakers’ favourite to score the first goal of the match in his return to Old Trafford at 4/1, followed by Dybala (5/1). Lukaku rounds out the top three while serving as United’s top option (11/2), with Marcus Rashford and Fernando Bernardeschi completing the top five at 13/2. Despite his brace at Chelsea, Martial has substantially long odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts at 8/1, which is behind the game ending without a goal-scorer (7/1) and teammate Alexis Sanchez and Juve’s Douglas Costa (15/2).

Ronaldo and Dybala also lead the line to score at any point in the match at 6/4 and 19/10 odds, respectively, while Lukaku is a 2/1 pick to run counter to his flat-track bully reputation and score for United. Rashford is a 5/2 choice to score while both Martial and Sanchez have 14/5 odds. On Juve’s side, Costa weighs in at 11/4, slightly behind Bernardeschi at 12/5.

PREDICTION

Based on United’s last two results and how they got there, the question of whether they can put together a complete 90 minutes remains the biggest issue facing them. If they play with the verve and nous of the second half they played against Chelsea, this could be a rollicking affair versus Ronaldo and Juventus. With the likelihood of Antonio Valencia at right back, though, there is a bit of a nod to defence with the realisation it will be a group effort to contain Ronaldo on the left.

It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Mandzukic’s absence makes considering he is second on Juve with three assists. The Croatia international is the grit between the smooth operators Ronaldo and Dybala, though the latter may not be 100 percent for this match. That means most of the playmaking duties will fall to midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who is plenty capable of the role considering he has two assists in Champions League play and four overall.

While Martial is in excellent form for United, Lukaku could very well be the difference between zero points and any for Mourinho’s side. The Belgium international has not scored in his last seven matches for the club and all four of his markers have come in league play. He will be going up against the well-seasoned tandem of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in central defence for Juve, which means it could be a long, frustrating night for Lukaku.

in the end, though, it always comes down to Ronaldo. United have no real good options at right back between Valencia and Ashley Young when it comes to containing Ronaldo’s pace, which means Matic and Chris Smalling must be cognizant of where the superstar is at all times, especially when he makes his darting runs into space since his straight-line speed must be respected.

If second-half United decide to play from the opening whistle, they should emerge with no worse than a draw. But expecting that to happen is pure speculation, and Juventus right now appear to be in too good a form to be slowed down at the moment.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 0, Juventus 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)
Liverpool (1-0-1) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 8 Preview — Manchester United (3-1-3) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-5)

The pressure continues to mount for Jose Mourinho, who could face the chopping block if Manchester United fail to at least get one point at Old Trafford on Saturday against a winless Newcastle United side.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Manchester United (3-1-3) are languishing in 10th place in the table, enduring a miserable stretch in the past fortnight that could see them go into the international break winless in five matches across all competitions. Mourinho’s side barely improved on their lethargic loss last weekend at West Ham United as Spanish side Valencia held them to a scoreless draw Wednesday at Old Trafford in Champions League play.

“The last few games haven’t been good enough. We need that break and we need that break with a win,” left back Luke Shaw told MUTV. “It’s always a better feeling going into an international break with a win, because if you go in without a win, it’s a long time before our next game when you can put things right. It’s frustrating if we don’t, but I’m sure we’ll bounce back.

“We keep saying that after every game and I’m sure it’s hard for the fans to take, but you don’t know what else you can say. We need to win on Saturday and we have to win and we have to do it for ourselves, for the team, for the staff and most importantly for the fans.”

Supporters at “The Theatre of Dreams” were treated to a nightmare of insipid football Wednesday, a far cry from the “Attack, attack, attack” pleas the Stretford End voiced throughout 90 forgettable minutes. That such an effort came against a side currently 14th in La Liga with just five goals in nine matches made it all the worse.

Embattled playmaking midfielder Paul Pogba again underwhelmed and central striker Romelu Lukaku was again undeserved by a midfield lacking imagination beyond Pogba in the form of defence-first options Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic.

Alexis Sanchez’s struggles continued on the right wing, his lack of effectiveness exacerbated by Valencia’s repeated forays forward in the open space he created failing to back track in front of Antonio Valencia. Mourinho made only one substitution, swapping Anthony Martial for the Chile international in the final quarter-hour, but it mattered little in the end as United had only four shots on target in a fourth consecutive match without a victory.

“They tried, the players tried and they raised the level of their effort. We raised our level and intensity and we tried to play in some crucial positions building up but we don’t have the technical quality to build from the back,” said Mourinho, again offering his team faint praise amid his withering criticisms. “We knew we were not going to create 20 chances because we know our attacking players are not also in the best moment of confidence and individual performance level.

“So we thought with three or four chances, we would score and win the game. Which we didn’t but, as I was saying, it’s not a bad result.”

Mourinho remains determined to stay at Old Trafford in a bid to buck the third-season struggles that have engulfed him – he still has the backing of ownership and club chairman Ed Woodward – and other high-profile clubs throughout his storied career, but even that right now appears little more than a marriage of inconvenience between. A growing list of former United players turned pundits – most notably Rio Ferdiand and Paul Scholes – have called on Woodward to sack Mourinho, with Ryan Giggs holding out in favour of Mourinho.

As all of English and European football media continue to take sides on whether Mourinho’s bile and rage will eventually consume himself and cost him this job through either the sack or resignation, the other looming truth is the only realistic option United have in trying to salvage this season if Mourinho does exit is bringing Zinedine Zidane to Old Trafford, and there is no guarantee the former Real Madrid boss and three-time Champions League winner will come on board.

Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez can empathise with Mourinho regarding struggling player performance, but only so much as the Tyneside club are one of three Premier League teams without a victory. The Magpies (0-2-5) are at the top of the drop, ahead of fellow winless squads Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City on goal difference, with Benitez’s tactical nous limiting the damage of a daunting early stretch of schedule that included four of the big six sides.

Like Mourinho, Benitez has plenty of worry about his team’s attack after it was completely non-existent in a 2-0 loss at home to Leicester City last weekend. Newcastle had only one shot on target, and it embodied the word “speculative” as Jonjo Shelvey tried to catch Foxes keeper Kasper Schmeichel off his line with a 60-yard effort that the Denmark international comfortably caught under his crossbar.

Otherwise, there was little to write home about, with the St James’ Park faithful again engaging in lusty booing of beleaguered owner Mike Ashley as the lack of funds to strengthen the Magpies continues to be the undercurrent regarding all things Tyneside and straining the relationship between owner and manager. Newcastle conceded a penalty on the half-hour when DeAndre Yedlin handled Harry Maguire’s shot inside the 18, and slack defending on a corner in the 73rd led to Leicester’s central defender putting the match out of reach with a header.

“The reality is, if the team are doing well, normally the fans are happier,” Benítez told The Times. “When you are not doing well, football fans expect to see the team doing things right. We have to improve, that is it.”

The problem for Benitez is he lacks the options in personnel to drive that improvement, especially in attack. Both Joselu and Salomon Rondon lack top-shelf quality operating as the lone striker in Newcastle’s 4-4-1-1 formation, and Ayoze Perez – who plays beneath whichever striker Benitez chooses for a given match – does not get enough touches to help them.

For all of Shelvey’s vision in the middle of the park, he has little help going forward, and the eventual pressure of defending and defending and defending reaches a crescendo in which a breakdown happens late, Newcastle concede and the hopes of nicking at least one point are dashed.

The Magpies have yet to lead at any point in their eight matches across all competitions this season. They have totaled just five goals, failed to score more than one in any contest, and three of those markers have come at 83 minutes and later.

The home team won both matches last term, with Manchester United storming to a 4-1 victory as Pogba had a goal and an assist to help the hosts overturn an early deficit. Newcastle won 1-0 in the most recent meeting, after which Mourinho excoriated his players for lacking the needed desire to win.

Newcastle’s lone win in 24 trips (1-8-15) to Old Trafford in the Premier League era was a 1-0 triumph in 2013 on a goal by Yohan Cabaye. The Magpies have scored more than one goal just twice in those 24 matches at Manchester United.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Man United are still prohibitive favourites to tune out the noise for one match at least as they enter this contest with 4/9 odds to claim all three points. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 16/5, while Newcastle are 7/1 longshots to claim only their second win at Old Trafford in the Premier League era.

While oddsmakers are expecting Manchester United to score goals — a win with 2.5 goals leads the listings at 27/20, there is a healthy respect for Benitez’s tactics as a Manchester win under 2.5 goals is not that far off at 9/4. Unsurprisingly, a 0-0 or 1-1 draw is the third-most attractive option at 4/1, while Newcastle victories offer substantial returns under 2.5 goals (12/1) and over (14/1).

Lukaku heads the list for first goal scorers at 14/5, leading a parade of seven Man United players that include Rashford (7/2), Martial (9/2), Sanchez and Pogba (5/1), Jesse Lingard (6/1) and Juan Mata (7/1). Joselu and Rondon are both 11/1 to give the Magpies a shock lead, rating behind Fellaini and no goal-scorer.

Lukaku is even money to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Rashford 11/8 and Martial (8/5) edging out Pogba (7/4) for third. That is somewhat surprising given Pogba is Man United’s designated penalty taker and Newcastle have already conceded spot kicks to two of the other four “Big Six” sides they have faced. Oddsmakers are still showing faith in Sanchez to get on track, offering 15/8 odds to find the back of the net.

PREDICTION

How much longer can this go on? This already has the feel of a Mexican standoff, with Mourinho offering clipped responses at press conferences, former Man United players-turned-pundits offering opinions every time a microphone is thrust in front of them or held by them and breathless speculation about suitors Woodward has or has not secretly met with to gauge their interests in a job that has been evolving into a poisoned chalice since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.

And with a reported £15 million payout for termination, the Glazers will have to think long and hard about sacking Mourinho and bringing in Zidane during a season as opposed to at season’s end. And whether you love or loathe “The Special One,” the United fan base will not go quietly into the night if the hatchet man does come calling for Mourinho.

But you know who can fix this, for one weekend at least? Lukaku. If ever Man United needed the Belgium international to live up to his flat-track bully reputation and pump in a goal or two, it’s in this match at this moment. Lukaku’s last goal came five matches agao at Watford, and it has been a combination on both ends why the drought is where it is. One is the lack of service, and the other is lack of finishing. One or both have to change, and one option is for Mourinho to have Pogba and Mata flank Matic in the 4-3-3 knowing full well Benitez is going to have two banks of four and dare Man United to come forward.

And that brings the conversation to Newcastle. Any other manager would have been pilloried with four league goals through seven matches and an inability to have a lead for even one of a possible 720 minutes. With the distance between last season’s 10th-place finish and this season’s current plight at Tyneside, it does look like Benitez was a sort of miracle worker in getting the Magpies to the top half before regressing to the mean thus far.

Some of that is the schedule, and while Man United are the fifth of the big six Newcastle are facing in their first eight matches, there can be only so much negative football played before it weighs on the players. That is not a knock against Benitez and his side, it’s simply the realisation trying to win 1-0 or hold out at 1-1 or 0-0 is an energy-intensive exercise steeped in frustration and misery. And Newcastle supporters already have that in spades tolerating Ashley’s stewardship of the club.

After playing down to Valencia, this is the match Man United finally get it right for 90 minutes and get three points, however convincing or unconvincing it may be.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER UNITED 2, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 8 PREVIEWS:

Watford (4-1-2) vs. Bournemouth (4-1-2)
Leicester City (4-0-3) vs. Everton (2-3-2)
Fulham (1-2-4) vs. Arsenal (5-0-2)
Liverpool (6-1-0) vs. Manchester City (6-1-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 6 Preview — Manchester United (3-0-2) vs. Wolverhampton (2-2-1)

It is a case of protégé versus mentor Saturday when Nuno Espirito Santo brings promoted and in-form Wolverhampton to Old Trafford to face Jose Mourinho and an equally sharp Manchester United squad.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

 

 

Nuno was the second-string goalkeeper at FC Porto, where Mourinho’s coaching star took off with a UEFA Cup title in 2003 and Champions League title the following season. During his time as a player, the coaching bug bit Nuno, who made it a point to soak up the managerial style of “The Special One” while also serving as his eyes and ears in the locker room for his gaffer.

The 44-year-old had three coaching stops – Rio Ave, Valencia and his old club Porto. While he enjoyed success with both Rio Ave and Valencia, his one season at Porto was devoid of silverware and he was fired despite a runners-up finish. Nuno then took over Wolverhampton last season, guiding them to promotion from the Championship in style as they clinched a move up with four matches to spare and the league title two matches later.

Nuno explained Mourinho’s influence on him to Soccer AM earlier this month, explaining that, “In that moment, what we had, the group of players we had, the way Mourinho manages and made us believe that it was possible to do what we did as a squad. We won everything, and it was absolutely fantastic.

“You take from everyone. When you have such success it’s because you do things right. Of course you learn a lot as a player when you pay attention to managers when they speak to you.”

When Manchester United (3-0-2) were struggling last month and many thought Mourinho was going through his customary third-season troubles that would result in him leaving Old Trafford, Nuno was quickly put up among his potential replacements, reports he quickly shot down by telling The Express, “I completely ignore it.”

Wolverhampton (2-2-1) are unlike almost any promoted team previously in the Premier League era because of their unusually high talent level. Part of that is by design – super agent Jorge Mendes, who counts both Nuno and Mourinho among his clients along with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo – was essentially a de facto advisor to the club following Nuno’s hiring and has been able to steer many Portuguese players to the club in that span.

The most important player may have come with Wolves promotion as Portugal No. 1 keeper Rui Patricio signed after a fan attack due to unrest with the club dealings at Sporting FC. Patricio has posted back-to-back clean sheets and conceded only five goals, one of which was an own goal.

Wolves, though, took the match to Burnley last time out, winning 1-0 on Raul Jimenez’s goal just after the hour mark. Wolverhampton finished with 30 shots, putting seven of them on frame, but Nuno is calling on his team to be better finishers ahead of this high-profile clash.

“It’s hard to build the way we build and stay organised in the shape,” the manager said post-match. “It could have been a different result but how we played is more important at this stage of the season. The scoreline could have been more. The way we create those chances requires the last touch, but things will come if we stay organised and are more clinical.”

With no injuries to report, Wolverhampton are expected to maintain the starting XI that has served Nuno throughout the club’s first five league matches.

United, meanwhile, are finally starting to resemble a top-tier side. Whether that is good enough to hang with the likes of reigning champions Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea is yet to be determined, but there is definitely progress being made.

Mourinho’s charges are looking for a fourth win on the bounce in all competitions after opening Champions League group play with an impressive 3-0 road win over Swiss side Young Boys on Wednesday. Paul Pogba put in arguably his finest performance since his £90 million signing last season, recording a first-half brace before assisting on Anthony Martial’s first goal of the season.

“Yeah, I am happy,” Pogba told MUTV. “Very happy to score, very happy to help my team and very happy with the result as well. We had the result that we all wanted. It was a very good start for us and we have to carry on like this.”

“He was solid, class, giving the team the pace that we need sometimes,” Mourinho said of his midfielder. “To increase the pace, keep the possession and just keep control of the tempo. Of course he scored a very good goal and the penalty showed personality, because when you miss a penalty you have doubts about taking the next one, but there were no doubts for him.”

Martial got the nod over Alexis Sanchez in part to playing the match on an artificial pitch, which was why Antonio Valencia did not make the trip. It is uncertain if Martial would get a second straight start, but at the very worst he will move up the pecking order since Marcus Rashford will serve the second of his three-match ban for a violent conduct red card given against Burnley.

Mourinho also will not have the services of midfielder Nemanja Matic, who was sent off late against Watford for his second booking. Marouane Fellaini, who appeared as a substitute late versus Young Boys, would likely slide into that spot between Pogba and Fred.

Valencia may have to fight off Diogo Dalot for his spot at right back after the 19-year-old and former Porto starlet made his long-awaited United debut Wednesday. Luke Shaw was restored to his left back spot after missing the win over Watford due to a concussion suffered while playing for England.

This is the first top-flight meeting between the clubs since United rolled to a 5-0 victory at Molineux in the 2011-12 season to complete a double in which they won by a combined 9-1. Wolves have yet to win at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, losing four league matches and two League Cup ties by a combined 14-4 scoreline.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are heavy 4/7 favourites, with Wolverhampton 5/1 underdogs to continue their fast start and steal away three points from Old Trafford. The odds of the teams sharing the points are 3/1.

United are also 7/5 favourites to pick up a win with the final tally being over 2.5 goals, and a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline for the hosts returns 14/5 odds. A draw under 2.5 goals is listed with 4/1 odds, while a Wolves victory over 2.5 goals gets a healthy 9/1 return. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory or Wolverhampton is listed at 11/1 odds.

For first goal-scorers, Lukaku leads the line at 7/2 odds, while a relatively well-rested Sanchez edges out Anthony Martial at 5/1, with the French youngster at 11/2. Given Pogba’s mid-week effort, there may be value at 6/1 considering he is United’s penalty taker.

Jimenez is Wolverhampton’s top option to make it 1-0 at 8/1, with Leo Bonatini behind the no goal-scoring option at 10/1.

Lukaku is also the favourite to score at any point over the 90 minutes, just below even-money odds at 23/20. Sanchez and Martial are joint-second at 9/5, followed by Pogba (21/10), then Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata (23/10). Jimenez is again the top option for Wolves at 13/5, though lurking for them at 4/1 is reserve Adama Traore.

PREDICTION

Crisis? What crisis? There has been a collective exhale throughout the red side of Manchester as United have looked the parts of title contenders the past three matches with professional wins in each contest. They put together their most complete effort in Bern against Young Boys, the challenge is now to kick on to that next level which puts them behind early frontrunners City, Liverpool and Chelsea to begin building for that final step.

Wolverhampton, or “Portugal Lite” for the snarky among us, has already shown all the makings of a side that will be mid-table at worst and lurking outsiders for a European spot if they can also kick on to a higher level. All the talk of protege versus mentor with Nuno versus Mourinho aside, this will be Wolves’ first measuring-stick match since their only other match against a top-five side was against Everton while having a man advantage for the final 50 minutes in a 2-2 season-opening draw.

Nuno hopefully took an important lesson from United’s victory over Watford in which the Hornets afforded Mourinho’s team far too much respect in the opening 45 minutes, and the Red Devils dutifully made them pay with those two first-half goals in quick-fire succession. Wolves are not going to have the majority of possession as they did last weekend versus Burnley — they will be fortunate to get near one-half of the 31 shots attemped versus the Clarets — which makes Patricio the man of the moment.

If the Portugal No. 1 matches his Iberian counterpart De Gea save for save (there may be no keeper in the Premier League more underappreciated than the Spaniard for the quality of saves he makes when called upon), Wolverhampton may be able to escape the Theatre of Dreams with a point. Otherwise, this is a game were United should begin flexing their muscle to start a climb up the table.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER UNITED 3, Wolverhampton 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 6 PREVIEWS:

Burnley (0-1-4) vs. Bournemouth (3-1-1)
Crystal Palace (2-0-3) vs. Newcastle United (0-1-4)
West Ham United (1-0-4) vs. Chelsea (5-0-0)
Arsenal (3-0-2) vs. Everton (1-3-1)