The sideshow rages on at Old Trafford, where Manchester United will try to put aside all the distractions created by Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba and create some separation in Group H of the Champions League on Tuesday when they host Valencia.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Any thought that Manchester United had moved on from their early season swoon promptly gave way to a fresh new inquest following a disastrous week in which they were bounced from the Carabao Cup on penalties by Derby County, coached by Frank Lampard, his one-time midfielder at Chelsea, and then were listless in a 3-1 defeat at West Ham United over the weekend.
Mourinho’s relationship at Pogba reached a nadir early last week when he stripped the World Cup winning midfielder of the vice captaincy in front of his teammates at training before the loss to Derby, and things were not helped when Pogba was lifted in the 70th minute of the loss to West Ham.
However, Mourinho then sucked whatever oxygen was left in the room Monday with a fresh round of criticisms of his team, saying “I see upset people, I see people that don’t look like they lost a game. I see different actions but what you see is not really inside.”
It still remains to be seen if Mourinho has truly lost either the plot or the dressing room in what is rapidly becoming yet another third-year death spiral for “The Special One.” The bigger issue for United is if the latter is the case, the only person who can conceivably come in and salvage this team this season is Zinedine Zidane, who has been breathlessly rumoured to be the next in line should Mourinho’s act run its course this term.
Things were not helped earlier Tuesday when reports emerged Mourinho has also fallen out with Alexis Sanchez, who has scored just three goals in 21 matches across all competitions since his January arrival from Arsenal.
The Chilean international has just one assist in five league matches and was held out of United’s 3-0 win over Young Boys in United’s Champions League opener a fortnight ago. He was an unused substitute in the loss to Derby and not among the 18 at West Ham United.
While Sanchez is expendable to a degree because Anthony Martial can be plugged in on the left wing in United’s 4-3-3 formation, Pogba continues to be a must-play despite the issues between him and Mourinho.
Yet the good news for United — at the moment — is that there appears to be a clear line of demarcation in Group H between the haves and the have-nots as Mourinho’s team are still expected to progress along with Juventus. That puts the pressure on Valencia to somehow get a result from Old Trafford after Els Taronges opened their Champions League adventure with a 2-0 defeat to the Italian side.
Yet the Spanish side enter this contest with some momentum after finally posting their first victory in La Liga last weekend, a 1-0 triumph at Real Soceidad on Saturday. Kevin Gameiro accounted for the lone goal, continuing the offensive struggles of a team that has recorded draws in five of their seven league matches while scoring just five goals.
“We’re here with hope, because of the surroundings, the competition and the opponent. We go out to win every game, even if we know how difficult it will be to win here,” Rodrigo said at Monday’s news conference. “We competed well against Juventus, but didn’t manage to get over the line. Even so, we’ve come here to win, and we’ll be trying to go out feeling as good as possible and to grow as a team.”
It is possible some of the offensive struggles of late were due to Marcelinho serving a two-match ban after being sent off in their scoreless draw at Villarreal, but the team has been held off the scoresheet in four of their eight matches. Els Taronges have scored three of their five goals on the road, but they also have not scored in 378 minutes of Champions League play dating to their last appearance in 2015 when Gent’s Stefan Mitrovic scored an own goal that made the difference in Valencia’s 2-1 victory.
Per Ladbrokes, United are still overwhelming favourites despite all the drama surrounding them, entering the match with 7/10 odds to take the full three points. The odds of the team splitting the points are 27/10, while Valencia are 4/1 longshots to pull off a shock scoreline and add some chaos to Group H.
Even with Valencia’s struggles, oddsmakers are counting on United to deliver some goals as a home win with more than 2.5 goals leads the options at 17/10 odds. A 1-0 or 2-0 victory follows with 3/1 odds, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw checks in at 18/5. For those who fancy the Spanish side emerging victorious, it is a 7/1 return on over 2.5 goals and 9/1 for under the mark.
Lukaku unsurprisingly leads the line for first goal-scorers at 3/1 odds, well clear of his wings Martial and Marcus Rashford, who are both 11/2 to make it 1-0 for United. Despite the reported fallout, Sanchez has 6/1 odds, and Pogba is always a viable selection as the penalty taker and gets 7/1 odds for the first marker. On Valencia’s side, Rodrigo Moreno leads the way at 15/2, followed by Gameiro and Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi — both of whom are 8/1.
Lukaku is almost even money to find the back of the net at some point during the match with 21/20 odds, with Rashford (15/8) edging out Martial (2/1) for second. Sanchez is a surprising 2/1 while Pogba lurks close behind him at 23/10 and Juan Mata has 5/2 odds. For Els Taronges, Moreno (13/5) edges out Gameiro and Batshuayi (11/4) for the top option.
Manchester United need to make the pressure go away, and the only way that happens — for the time being at least — is with a victory in this game. A third successive loss on the bounce to teams all of lesser quality when compared to what Mourinho has regardless of his criticisms may be too much water for the ship to take on.
The Red Devils looked listless at West Ham, and perhaps more ominously, it looked like Mourinho was outcoached by counterpart Manuel Pellegrini as United lacked answers after falling behind. This match should be different because Valencia have lacked any and all offence for much of the young season — they have not scored more than two goals in any match.
Yet Rodrigo and Batshuayi could provide problems for a back four that still appear fragile at times, especially with the central partnership of Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling. While it would no be surprising to see Fellaini as the shield in front of them, this may be a case where Matic may be the better call to be that holding midfielder while Pogba and Fred push forward.
For all the doom and gloom around United, they are not a bad side. There is quality throughout the pitch, and that doesn’t even factor in keeper David De Gea, arguably the best shot-stopper in the Premier League and perhaps Europe. It is a matter of everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, and that can only start with a victory — one United will likely graft to here.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: MANCHESTER UNITED 1, Valencia 0.