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)

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

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

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

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 1 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City vs. Lyon

 

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

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

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

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION

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

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

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

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

Predicted Final Score: Watford 1, Manchester United 1.

OTHER MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEWS:

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

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

Both Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are dealing with sizable distractions ahead of Monday’s showdown at Old Trafford.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Jose Mourinho’s third-season meltdowns at previous stops in England and Europe are well-documented, and the prospect of another one seems to be growing with each passing day. He is still reportedly upset club vice chairman Ed Woodward failed to land any of his summer transfer targets, most notably in central defence, and that contributed to United’s horrid 3-2 loss at Brighton and Hove Albion on Aug. 19.

The pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof – centre backs whom Mourinho wanted and United (1-0-1) got for a combined £60 million – both endured a torrid time in the opening 45 minutes when they conceded all three goals. Lindelof was directly responsible for the first and Bailly committed the foul that resulted in a penalty for the third.

As opposed to late last term when Mourinho excoriated his players, the Portuguese manager held his tongue publicly after the match, saying “please don’t ask me to go in this direction because it’s not good for me.”

Midfielder Paul Pogba, who would have been one of those players Mourinho likely would have criticised given he lost possession 28 times versus Brighton, created his own swirl of post-match controversy by saying “My attitude wasn’t right” to MUTV.

The midfielder, who has converted penalties in United’s first two matches, is also getting stick for failing to keep his agent Mino Raiola out of the media’s eye. Raiola got into a social media dust-up with ex-United midfielder and BT Sport pundit Paul Scholes, who criticised Pogba’s lack of leadership in the defeat.

Raiola shot back Scholes “wouldn’t recognize a leader if he was in front of Sir Winston Churchill,” and sarcastically suggested he should become United’s sports director. Pogba failed to help matters Thursday by making a shushing motion on an Instagram post while unveiling his new line of adidas footwear to mark France’s World Cup title.

Mourinho was then at his tetchy best in Friday’s pre-match news conference, which lasted all of four minutes and 19 seconds. He confirmed his relationship his Woodward as fine by responding “of course” to the question, told reporters to take up Pogba’s comments with the midfielder, offered little about how the squad trained during the week, and only conceded Spurs will be a “difficult match, against a team that last season finished top four, so difficult match.”

The most newsworthy portion was learning Alexis Sanchez, Nemanja Matic, Antonio Valencia all are training with the first team. Sanchez was a surprise omission last week due to a muscle injury, while first-team regulars Matic and Valencia have yet to make their season debuts.

Valencia would be a welcome sight at right back, where both Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young struggled to cover ground in the opening two matches. Matic could provide a needed counterweight to Pogba, taking his customary spot in front of the back four and forming a diamond with him, Fred and striker Romelu Lukaku as Sanchez and either Marcus Rashford or Juan Mata roam the flanks.

Things were humming along nicely for Tottenham Hotspur (2-0-0), who put aside the chatter of standing pat this summer with victories over Newcastle United and new boys Fulham. Harry Kane freed himself of the August albatross by finally scoring his first league goal in the first month of the season to cap a 3-1 win over the Cottagers on Aug. 18.

Yet all those good feelings were wiped away with the news keeper Hugo Lloris was charged with drink-driving in the early hours Friday in west London. The talisman of France’s World Cup winning side quickly released a statement through the team in which he wanted “to apologise wholeheartedly to my family, the club, my teammates, the manager and all of the supporters” and added “I take full responsibility for my actions and it is not the example I wish to set.”

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has yet to say whether the charge will lead to him benching his No. 1 keeper for this match. There have been reports Lloris will be stripped of the captaincy, which would be given to Kane – who wore the armband for England at the World Cup.

Last weekend’s win over Fulham saw Spurs at full strength save Heung-Min Son’s absence as he plays for South Korea in the Asian Games. Lucas Moura filled that spot and scored the opening goal of the match, and Kieran Trippier – a key cog in England’s run to the semifinals in Russia – scored the match-winner with a well-taken free kick.

This match could also make Mourinho wistful for Spurs centre back Toby Alderweireld, who was one of the players on his summer wish list. He became the most realistic option before the transfer deadline after United were priced out of signing Leicester City and England international Harry Maguire.

The Belgium international had wanted out of north London due to a lack of playing time – due to both a hamstring injury and the fallout of a contract standoff – but Alderweireld got his first start against Fulham as part of a 3-4-1-2 set-up and is expected to be in the first XI again versus United. Based on Pochettino’s comments after the victory over Fulham, the relationship between the pair appears to be merely professional at best.

“I won’t talk about him, I’ll talk in general always,” Pochettino told The Times. “I want players committed with the team. Players that are not happy, from my point of view, can leave. Then it’s different if they can negotiate with Daniel (Levy) or not.

“But if they are going to be here, I want full commitment. If not, tomorrow we can find a solution. I am so tired of talking about this.”

United have won four on the trot at home – the last three by 1-0 counts — over the Lilywhites and carry a 384-minute shutout streak there since Christian Eriksen scored the winner in Tottenham’s 2-1 victory to ring in 2014.

Spurs have a track record of abject misery at Old Trafford, winning only two of their last 30 matches (2-4-24) in all competitions. And for all the talk of distractions and dissention around Manchester United, Mourinho’s men did win their last four matches versus top-six sides last term.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are slight 6/4 favourites, while Tottenham Hotspur have 15/8 odds to win. The draw is the long shot of the trio carrying 11/4 odds. Since punters expect both teams to score (Yes is a slight favourite at 3/4 over No at 21/20), United are 4/1 favourites to win such an outcome while Spurs are close behind at 9/2.

Punters also seem to be leaning toward a 1-1 draw as that is getting 3/1 odds, followed by a United victory and over 2.5 goals (16/5) and a Spurs victory over 2.5 goals (17/4). Those who feel United can record a fourth consecutive 1-0 scoreline at Old Trafford can get 21/5 odds on that outcome with under 2.5 goals and 7/1 odds on that exact outcome.

Kane leads the line for first-time goal-scorers at 7/2, followed by Lukaku (9/2). Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente is a surprising third option at 11/2, edging out both Sanchez and Rashford at 6/1.

Kane and Lukaku also lead the anytime goal-scorers list at 5/4 and 7/4 respectively. Llorente is again third at 2/1, closely followed by Sanchez (21/10) and Rashford (11/5).For those who believe Pogba will score for a third straight contest via penalty or otherwise, the France international checks in at 3/1.

PREDICTION

It may be too early to label this a must-win game for Manchester United, but there is a very real urgency not to lose this contest. Falling six points behind Manchester City after three matches will only fan the flames of panic and sharpen the knives around Old Trafford, and if you thought Mourinho was at his cantankerous best Friday, you can imagine what he would be like with two losses in three out of the blocks.

Getting Sanchez back would be nice, yes, but Matic could wind up being the swing vote in this match should he be ready to go. If Lindelof and Bailly can’t handle the pressure from Pascal Gross and Glenn Murray, how are they going to cope with Kane and Dele Alli while Christian Eriksen supports both through the middle? Matic is an enormous security blanket for the two young centre backs, a role neither Pogba nor Fred fully figured out working in tandem with Andreas Pereira.

The fact two players needed to do it while Matic has been recovering speaks volumes to his importance.

Lloris’ status cannot be fully addressed until Pochettino announces his decision, so there is little to debate for the time being. The between the lines message from Pochettino when discussing/not discussing Alderweireld’s status is the Spurs’ boss seemed ok with chairman Daniel Levy’s decision to stand pat over the summer.

While this goes completely against the arms race the Premier League has become since the most recent television deal, it’s still an interesting long-term gamble that could determine if Spurs are in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal-like holding pattern fighting for a top-four spot or whether Unai Emery’s Arsenal and Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea can overtake them, even as early as this season.

Given how Mourinho does his best work when the outward appearance is he’s cornered, expect United to bare their teeth in a cagey match. Even with Matic, one gets the sense Mourinho’s squad are still not capable of a full-on 90-minute performance in the back without at least one glaring mistake, and Spurs’ defence has also switched off at times.

Predicted Final Score: Manchester United 1, Tottenham Hotspur 1.

Other Match Day 3 Previews:

Wolverhampton (0-1-1) vs. Manchester City (2-0-0)
Arsenal (0-0-2) vs. West Ham United (0-0-2)
Fulham (0-0-2) vs. Burnley (0-1-1)
Newcastle United (0-1-1) vs. Chelsea (2-0-0)

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester United (August 5)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 19th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

MANCHESTER UNITED RED DEVILS

Manager: Jose Mourinho (Hire Date: May 27, 2016)
Tenure Length: 9th/20 in Premier League and 27th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 25-6-7, 81 points, 2nd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 68
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-40
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 44 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1975
Last Relegation: 
1974 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Sevilla)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss (Bristol City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Runner-up (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

Manchester United hit the ground running last season, rolling past West Ham United, Swansea City and Leicester City by a combined 10-0 margin as Romelu Lukaku made an instant impact with three goals in his first two matches in a United shirt. The Red Devils held out for a 2-2 draw at Stoke City, but the sprint out of the blocks resumed with six wins on the bounce — two of them to open their Champions League account.

Some of the excitement from the start was tempered when Manchester United lost influential midfielder Paul Pogba to a hamstring injury that would sideline him two months. Despite 32 goals and only three against in this 9-1-0 run to open the term, the cries of anti-football against Jose Mourinho came immediately after a lifeless 0-0 draw at Anfield against Liverpool on Oct. 14.

Mourinho set up his team pragmatically and defensively as United finished with one shot on target. Liverpool’s five shots on frame were one less than Mourinho’s side attempted all match.

The “Special One” had a flash of thunder after a 2-1 loss at promoted Huddersfield Town the following week, excoriating his team for a lack of “aggression, desire, motivation and sacrifice” despite having nearly 80 percent possession as Pogba’s absence continued to loom large. United regrouped with three wins, but another high-profile match came and went without a goal as they came up short in a 1-0 loss at his old Stamford Bridge stomping grounds.

While United never dropped below second in the table all season, it was becoming painfully clear their eternal rival Manchester City was pulling away with every match day United did not get all three points. Pogba finally returned in mid-November, making an instant impact in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United, though it was also the first time Mourinho used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together.

Mourinho’s renewal of antagonisms with Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger for what would be their final head-to-head clash at the Emirates ended with Manchester United recording a 3-1 victory in what may have been the perfect way for Mourinho to get the better of “Le Professeur” once more. Despite allowing the Gunners to take 33 shots and have 75 percent possession, United were lethal on the counter as Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard scored in the first 11 minutes.

Lingard would complete his brace after the hour, and the only blemish on the victory was Pogba taking a needless red card right before the final quarter-hour. They did place atop their Champions League group with 15 points and 12 goals from their six matches, the lone blemish a 1-0 defeat at runner-up and Swiss side FC Basel.

Pogba’s absence would loom large as the first Manchester derby went blue with a 2-1 City victory that also ended United’s record-tying 40-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford. The result left United 11 points adrift of their eternal rivals after just 16 league matches, a daunting deficit.

Manchester United would regroup with back-to-back wins in league play before a stunning fifth-round Carabao Cup exit at Championship side Bristol City in which Korey Smith delivered a stoppage-time winner for the host club. That led into the congested holiday fixture list in which United ground out three draws before turning the calendar year over with a win at Everton.

The January transfer window brought in Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal while Henrikh Mkhitaryan went in the other direction, his strong start little more than a flash in the pain as his playing time was gradually cut as the season progressed. United won their first five matches in 2018 before a 2-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur marked by the embarrassment of conceding a goal in the first 11 seconds.

By February, it was clear City would win the league, which meant United could turn their attention to the Champions League. Mourinho played a classic pragmatic first-leg tie at Sevilla and got what was needed with a scoreless draw in which his team had only one shot on target and six overall.

The Red Devils won their next three on the bounce in league play, beating Chelsea and Liverpool at home around a victory at Crystal Park. But any dreams of a deep Champions League run to offset not being able to catch Manchester City fell apart with a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sevilla.

Wissem Ben Yedder turned the match on its head, breaking a scoreless deadlock two minutes after being introduced and completing his brace four minutes later in the 78th. Lukaku would pull one back for United, but the shock was too much to overcome as it would be a 10th straight year without lifting the Champions League trophy.

It also marked a week in which Mourinho went white-hot in attacking his team through the media, a spleen-venting that was unprecedented even by his already-high standards of using the press to get his message across. After the loss to Sevilla, he decried the lack of winning culture at United while City has risen to the ascendancy in Manchester over the past decade.

That, however, was just a broadside before the fusillade of criticism he unveiled after United’s 2-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup quarterfinals. He said his team had a “lack of personality, a lack of class and a lack of desire” and was only happy with the result of the game as he called out nearly everyone save Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay.

Call it withering, call it scathing, call it anything you like, but the tirade was also one of Mourinho’s moments where he lays the groundwork for his vision going forward. The stinging rebuke was still echoing through his players’ ears three weeks later at the Etihad, where City had taken a 2-0 halftime lead and were 45 minutes away from setting a Premier League record for the earliest clinching of a title with the bonus of doing so at home against their most hated rivals.

Mourinho again reached into his bag of motivational rhetoric ploys at intermission, telling his team “you don’t want to be the clowns standing there, watching them get their title,” and this time they responded. Pogba had two scintillating goals four minutes apart before Chris Smalling latched onto a free kick by Sanchez to bag an unlikely winner. While the 3-2 United win merely delayed the inevitable of City’s third Premier League title in seven years, it was enough to calm the nerves for one weekend at least.

United reached the FA Cup final by beating Tottenham 2-1 at Wembley, then showed Wenger out the door with grace and another victory over their London foils with a 2-1 triumph as Marouane Fellaini grabbed a stoppage-time winner.

Despite losing just seven times in league play, the past season will also be remembered for the fact United somehow lost to all three promoted teams on the road, though it should also be noted Newcastle United is anything but a typical promoted side. Still, Mourinho’s side fell 1-0 at Brighton and Hove Albion, a famous victory for the Gulls that secured a second season in the top flight.

United wrapped up  league play with a draw at West Ham against former manager David Moyes and a 1-0 win over Watford. Their bid to end the season on a positive note with the FA Cup title fell by the wayside with a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Wembley as they could not overcome Eden Hazard’s penalty on 22 minutes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Manchester United Lineup.png

Frankly, there is little confidence in this as a projected starting XI beyond De Gea between the sticks, Sanchez on the left and Lukaku eventually leading the line in a 4-3-3 set-up that fails to take into account a potential signing of Toby Alderweireld. Luke Shaw, who has been one of Mourinho’s favorite whipping boys, likely gets the initial run-out at left back while Ashley Young recovers from World Cup duty.

Victor Lindelof should be one of the players in central defense after a solid World Cup run to the quarterfinals with Sweden. Jones moves up into a defensive midfielder’s role until Matic recovers from surgery while flanked by Pogba and summer signing Fred.

Rashford will be given every chance to lock down the spot on the right opposite Sanchez, while Martial can provide depth at either position while preferring to play on the left. It is also likely there will be room for both of them early should Lukaku be unavailable for as Sanchez can lead the line if needed.

One player who needs to find his way onto the pitch is Jesse Lingard, who was another productive player for England at the World Cup and could provide a different look in attack. Juan Mata could serve in the playmaking role in limited bursts, and Fellaini — a Mourinho favorite — also is in the mix despite rumours he wanted to leave Old Trafford.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

While a missing figure for much of last season due to injury, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was released in March to continue his goal-scoring exploits in the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. Among more immediate first-team players, Daley Blind departed for Ajax, and Matteo Darmian is reportedly trying to finalise a deal with Benfica.

While Anthony Martial wants to leave United, the current plight of missing players due to World Cup recovery means the French winger — who missed out playing for the World Cup-winning Les Bleus — likely will not get his wish. Mourinho has given his blessing for veteran defenders Marcus Rojo to move on from Old Trafford.

United have made three official signings entering the final days of the summer transfer window, the most notable one being Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. The £52 million midfielder and Brazil international, though, suffered an injury in the run-up to the World Cup and missed out on the tournament for the Selecao.

The other confirmed signings were teenage defender Diogo Dalot from FC Porto and veteran goalkeeper Lee Grant from Stoke City. United are reportedly close to a deal for disgruntled Spurs central defender Alderweireld after being rebuffed for both Leicester City’s Harry Maguire and Barcelona’s Yerry Mina.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Paul Pogba (MF)

A lightning rod all season long for play that ranged from breathtakingly brilliant to boringly inspid with often no middle ground, Pogba returns to Old Trafford a World Cup winner, but it was the method that raised eyebrows, including Mourinho’s.

Pogba was used in tandem with N’Golo Kante in a reserved midfield role for France once manager Didier Deschamps realised the United star could not fully co-exist in an offence that featured Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe running in every direction underneath Olivier Giroud.

To his credit, Pogba played the role beautifully — highlighted by his stunning two-way play against Belgium in the semifinals — and he did net the match-winner in the final versus Croatia. What made the success so startling is that the role Deschamps defined for Pogba was the one Mourinho was unsuccessfully trying to slot Pogba into for United.

Mourinho even lamented Pogba’s international success while praising him, noting United’s success this season could hinge on “him understanding why he was so good, especially in the second part of the competition.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, United are the third-best choice to win the Premier League at 13/2 odds and for a top-four finish at 2/7. They are also joint-second with Liverpool for a top-six finish at 1/20. Manchester United is third at 7/1 odds to top the table on Christmas Day and receiving 9/2 odds for a top-two finish behind City for a second straight year.

Lukaku is joint-third with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 6/1 odds, while Sanchez is further down the list at sixth with 16/1 odds. Pogba and Lukaku are the top United players in terms of Player of the Year odds, listed joint-eighth with Aubameyang and Spurs’ Christian Eriksen at 20/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Leicester City (10th) H
Aug. 19 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
Aug. 27 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
Sept. 1 — Burnley (7th) A
—————
April 20 — Everton (8th) A
April 27 — Chelsea (5th) H
May 4 — Huddersfield Town (16th) A
May 12 — Cardiff City (N/A) H

OUTLOOK

With a third season of Jose Mourinho on the touchline usually comes some sort of madness that results in club disaster and/or him leaving said touchline. The track record is plainly evident — third season unrest at Chelsea in 2007 after winning the Premier League title the season before. Third season exit at Real Madrid by mutual agreement in 2013. Third-season meltdown in his second go-round at Chelsea in 2016 in which he was out the door in December.

Now he enters his third season at United. He cut an angry, disappointed figure throughout the team’s tour of the United States this summer, largely because he missed out on seemingly all his major transfer targets, but also because the tour did little to sharpen the players he needs to have any chance of ending what could be a burgeoning dynasty on the other side of the city.

His critiques about his team, while harsh, had plenty of merit. It’s hard to feel anything but aggravation like he did after the 4-1 loss to Liverpool in which so few first-team roster players, let alone starting XI players, were on the pitch.

It is a team that does not lack for talent at every position, yet there has nothing about this preseason build-up that lends belief United will contend for a title. One of the underreported storylines of the early part of the season is how will keeper David De Gea recover from a sub-par World Cup in which he made exactly ONE save in Spain’s four matches while allowing six goals and failing to stop any penalties in the loss to Russia in the round of 16?

Matic’s absence in the early part of the season could loom very large. Mourinho’s demand for a central defender seemed to offer hints he wanted to go to a three-man back line, and he may be able to do that should Alderweireld come on board, but there is a certain irony in that his pragmatic ways may become necessary ways for United to navigate their opening stretch of schedule.

Still, when everyone does become available, it is a United team that has to improve. Pogba must retain his form from the World Cup. While Lukaku did not score after the knockout rounds for Belgium, he showed plenty of nous in creating opportunities for others, and his interplay with Sanchez will determine how far United really can go.

Mourinho may have to play Martial and Marcus Rashford together more often, something he was loathe to do last season. Also, the back-and-forth with Martial has to end quickly, and chairman Ed Woodward’s insistence on not selling the Frenchman could have lasting repercussions.

Unlike the United teams under predecessor Louis van Gaal, this is not a rudderless team. But it also feels like a side drifting without a direction while the teams around them — save Tottenham Hotspur — all began moving forward with a plan. After last season’s runner-up finish, one gets the sense Manchester United is going to have to graft hard to retain a Champions League spot in the top four, and if Mourinho gets mercurial, then all bets are off.

PREDICTED FINISH

6th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018 World Cup Preview Match 63 — Belgium vs. England

When Belgium and England played last month to close out Group G, there was nothing on the line. Though third place at the World Cup may feel like little more than nothing, the teams will clash Saturday in St. Petersburg to complete their respective journeys in Russia.

The golden generation of Belgium has pride on the line, looking for its best World Cup finish after losing to France in the third-place match in 1986. Roberto Martinez’s team was on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Tuesday’s semifinal, also against France.

The counterattack that served the Red Devils so well in their knockout victories over Japan and Brazil was completely stifled by Les Bleus. Belgium, which entered the match with a World Cup-leading 14 goals, was limited to three shots on target as Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel had the side’s best chances on either side of halftime.

Romelu Lukaku, who is tied for second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals, was starved of service up front and neutralized by France’s central defenders. While he did have an assist against Brazil, Lukaku has furthered a dubious reputation as a flat-track bully by failing to score in all three knockout matches after bagging his braces against Panama and Tunisia in group play.

“I’m proud of the way we performed and of our World Cup,” Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne told FIFA’s official website. “France maybe played a little defensively but the beauty of football is that you can choose the way you want to play. I respect that.

“We feel we’ve given our all and we need to focus on the positives. We’ve got just one wish now: to win a sixth match in Russia so we can go away on holiday even more at peace with ourselves.”

Coach Roberto Martinez, whose tactics succeeded against Brazil, faltered against France in opting for Mousa Dembele as Belgium sorely missed suspended wing back Thomas Meunier in the semifinals. Keeper Thibaut Courtois again did well between the sticks, finishing with four saves, and has made 12 in his last two matches after making 10 in his first four contests.

Of Martinez’s first-choice XI, at least five players could be making their final World Cup appearance, most notably talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany. Alderweireld, Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen also could all be marking their international farewell with this match, though all five could also be in Martinez’s plans for the 2020 European Championship.

As Belgium begins a cycle of transition to some of its younger players to build around the axis of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, England is looking to take one last positive from an overachieving World Cup experience. The Three Lions, the second-youngest team in terms of experience in Russia, have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a fan base that had come to expect — and endure — the worst over the past 20-plus years.

Gareth Southgate’s team has an incredibly quick turnaround following its heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in extra time to Croatia on Wednesday. Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions the lead in the fifth minute with a sumptuous free kick, but the fearlessness of youth finally gave way to the nerves of the moment.

The lack of a true playmaking midfielder doomed England, who did not have a shot on frame for 94 minutes after Trippier’s goal. There was much for the Three Lions to rue in that short time frame after the final whistle Wednesday and kickoff Saturday as both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard spurned chances with the opportunity to double England’s lead in the first half.

Then there were the split-second moments and decisions that led to Croatia’s two goals — Kyle Walker going too low on his headed clearance that allowed Ivan Perisic to score the tying goal in the 68th minute and John Stones’ brief lapse that let Mario Mandzukic ghost behind him for the match-winner 11 minutes from time.

Still, considering the low expectations England faced considering its 2014 group play exit and embarrassing loss to Iceland two summers ago in the round of 16 in the European Championships, this stirring run to the semifinals and an opportunity to play a seventh match at the World Cup was more than anyone could have projected.

“It shows we can be up there,” Kane said. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.

“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.

While the match gives both Martinez and Southgate another chance to again use their reserves as a reward working hard at practice, one regular who wants no part of the bench is England keeper Jordan Pickford. The Everton No. 1 was one of England’s top players in the knockout matches and wants his 11th cap.

“Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to be the goalkeeper of the tournament,” Pickford told The Sun. “We came to win this tournament and we can’t do that now but we want to finish third. It will be a tough test against Belgium — again.

“It will be hard to get ourselves up for it. That’s where character comes in. It’s a chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Belgium
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)
July 10 — Belgium 0, France 1 (Umtiti 51′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
July 11 — England 1, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

It’s uncertain whether Martinez will overhaul his lineup for this match considering he already did in the group match. The hedge is he will at least give Lukaku a chance to try and catch Kane for the Golden Boot and include him in the starting XI. That leads to the belief Belgium’s primary attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard will be out there at the start.

Meunier likely will be restored to the starting lineup since he’s the freshest player of either team after serving his yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals. It would not be surprising to see Dedryck Boyata in central defense, but the hedge is Martinez will use this match as a farewell for his stars.

Southgate will probably have a mix of his starters and substitutes, though Trippier is almost certain to miss this match after having suffered a lower-body injury in the final minutes of extra time in the loss to Croatia. It’s also possible Eric Dier could start in central midfield after Jordan Henderson ran himself into the ground in five of the six matches for the Three Lions.

Like Lukaku, there is an expectation Kane will at least be out there for the start to let him try and hunt out a seventh goal that would set an England record at a single World Cup. The one area of intrigue would be playing youngsters Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold together again like Southgate did in group play.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Meunier is available after serving his one-match ban, and while it is not definite, Trippier is likely the only person on either side who is not expected to play due to his injury. England striker Jamie Vardy was fit enough to play the final eight minutes after missing the Colombia match with a groin injury.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium — Romelu Lukaku (F)

After a frustrating match against France, Lukaku has one last chance to pip Kane for the Golden Boot. His assist against Brazil secured the Silver Boot since he is the only player among fellow four-goal scorers Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). If Lukaku fails to score in this match, France’s Antoine Griezmann could claim second with a goal since he has two assists.

England — Jordan Pickford (GK)

Pickford came to Russia with just four caps and plenty of question marks. He will leave this World Cup as a world-class keeper and full of confidence ahead of returning to Everton for the upcoming Premier League season. Only France’s Hugo Lloris has had a better overall run in the knockout stages between the sticks, and Pickford has answered the call in crucial moments time and again for the Three Lions.

The fact he wants to start this match bodes well for Southgate as Pickford wants a stranglehold on the No. 1 shirt as England begins its next cycle — the 2020 European Championships.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1954 (Switzerland) GS — England 4, Belgium 4 a.e.t. (Anoul 5′, Broadis 26′, Lofthouse 36′, Broadis 63′, Coppens 67′, Anoul 71′, Lofthouse 91′, Dickinson 94′ (og))
1990 (Italy) R/16 — England 1, Belgium 0 a.e.t. (Platt 119‘)
2018 (Russia) GS — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)

Belgium’s victory in Kaliningrad last month was just its third in 22 all-time matches (3-4-15) versus England and its first in three World Cup matches (1-1-1). The previous two World Cup matches came in 1954 and 1990 — the first being a wild 4-4 draw in group play in Switzerland in which an own goal by England’s James William Dickinson in the 94th minute was the equalizer.

The teams meet again in Italy 36 years later, with England winning 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 as David Platt’s superb volley on a free kick from Paul Gascoigne in the 119th minute spared the Three Lions potential misery in penalties.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a firm favorite with 23/20 odds, while England is listed as a 9/4 underdog. Bettors do not seem too keen on the match ending in a draw and going to penalties as the listed odds are 27/10.

Punters are also expecting goals in this contest as two and three-goal totals are joint-favorites at 3/1, and a four-goal outcome is listed at 4/1. For first goal-scorers, Kane nudges out Lukaku as favorite with 10/3 odds, while Lukaku is 4/1. Michy Batshuayi is third on the list at 9/2 odds while Hazard and Vardy are joint-fourth at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It’s the match nobody wants to play yet both Belgium and England will be keen on exiting Russia on an up note. It is the first rematch in a World Cup since 2002, when Brazil beat Turkey in the semifinals after doing so in group play. It is the fifth time overall since 1962, with Brazil involved in three previous instances.

Everything about predicting what could happen in this match is a crapshoot give the emotional hangover of losing a World Cup semifinal, more so for England considering the Three Lions have a shorter turnaround and had the more excruciating defeat by losing in extra time.

You expect professionalism on both sides, and with so many players familiar with one another playing in England’s Premier League, there should be enough motivation to avoid being needled on the club training grounds to put forth such an effort. In the last third-place game in 2014, host Brazil’s hangover from its 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany most certainly carried into its 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands.

Last month’s group stage closer saw 17 of the 22 starters on the bench for the opening kickoff. It would seem likely that number will be significantly less while still operating with a noticeable mix of holdovers and reserves.

At the very least, the hope is both teams pick out their star strikers to try and help their cause to win the Golden Boot. Both Kane and Lukaku were spectators in Belgium’s 1-0 victory, and while Kane may be the more tired of the pair given his 120-minute effort versus Croatia, the Three Lions talisman undoubtedly will give it his all should Southgate ask him to lead the line.

In the end, though, look for Belgium to aggressively pour forward and while England may have more opportunities to counter than it did in last month’s 1-0 loss, it may also be picked apart more by a higher-quality Red Devils side.

PREDICTION: Belgium 3, England 2

UP NEXT

England’s first Nations League match will be at home against Spain on Sept. 8, while Belgium’s first match in the new UEFA set-up will be Sept. 11 at Iceland.