The International break usually provides a relatively dull and unwelcome inconvenience for football fans, but this couldn’t have been more true than for Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United.
Not only did the fixture list throw up numerous uninspiring affairs, but it halted a much needed momentum found within the Old Trafford camp after a hard-earned 2-1 victory over Everton – Van Gaal’s first consecutive wins since taking over.
There was a standout, match-winning performance from David De Gea, who is staking a realistic claim to oust Spanish captain Iker Casillas as first choice stopper. #Davesaves were in abundance to deny the Toffees a share of the points with spectacular efforts to see off attempts from Leon Osman and Bryan Oviedo.
In addition, the Everton fixture saw a match winner from Radamel Falcao with Colombian finally opening his United at the fourth time of asking, sparking a huge sigh of relief from the Old Trafford faithful. The feeling was echoed to a greater extent by the striker himself, clearly not used to such periods of time without finding the back of the net – perhaps the catalyst for a goal for his country just days later.
Despite a plethora of names on the injury list, the three points over Everton would have handed the squad a huge boost in their attempts to repair damage done by early season teething problems after defeats to both Swansea and Leicester, and a halt to proceedings with the squad going separate ways would have been a blow to the squad’s growing camaraderie.
On the plus side for the Reds, the manager was a little more chipper in his pre-match press conference than usual due to significant reductions in what seemed like a never ending casualty list.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick are all available for selection for Monday evening’s trip to The Hawthorns. Ander Herrera also returns but may have the aid of a corset to support his broken rib if selected for action, but with a huge clash with Jose Mourinho and Chelsea on the Sunday, don’t be surprised to see the combative Spaniard be given full time to recuperate.
Only Jonny Evans, Paddy McNair, Antonio Valencia and Jesse Lingard are confirmed absentees through injury for round eight of the Premier League season, while skipper Wayne Rooney sits out the second of his three-match suspension.
Thirty players have already featured for United this season – more than any other club – but there are unlikely to be any real surprises in Louis Van Gaal’s XI with stability now the focus as players return to fitness.
With the Dutchman favouring one right and one left sided central defender, it is likely that Jones will get the nod in his first start alongside Rojo – in what one can only assume will be our first choice partnership going forward – while Rafael and Shaw should continue at full-back after impressing in recent performances.
They’ll face a tricky task in containing the Baggies in-form frontman Saido Berahino who already has six goals in nine appearances this season, five of which came in front of his home supporters.
Don’t be fooled by Alan Irvine’s team’s current position at 14th in the table after impressing recently with three victories from their last five in all competitions, including a 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane as well as 4-0 thrashing of struggling Burnley.
Keeping home attacks down will be vital for United – who have looked vulnerable when on the back foot all season – as Falcao, Van Persie, Di Maria and Mata should undoubtedly provide the creative spark and firepower needed to pose West Brom problems of their own.
This will rely largely though on keeping things going for longer than the usual hour mark where we have seemed to take our foot of the gas so far during LVG’s tenure. A 62nd minute strike from Falcao was enough to prove decisive against Everton, despite sustained Toffee’s attacks for the game’s final third.
With nine first half goals this season, more than any other club in the division, the Dutchman clearly has no problem motivating his team to get going straight out of the blocks, but efforts wane and momentum shifts the deeper into the match we get, costing us dearly against both Leicester and Swansea, and seeing us lose vital ground in the title race.
With Mourinho’s “little horse” sprinting into an early lead in the title race and now eleven points clear of United at this stage, it’s evident that there is still plenty of work to do, but far from the doom and gloom forecast after the season’s opening fixtures.
Victory at The Hawthorns would see the Reds just three points behind defending champions Manchester City, while Arsenal and Liverpool have put surprise good fortune behind them in their familiar quest of flirting with mediocrity.
Di Maria will be relied upon heavily once again, after three goals and three assists so far in his short United career see our new number seven as our main hope for three points. The Argentine’s ability to pick up the ball in midfield and sprint through opposition has provided given the side a new dynamic and will certainly be singled out as a marked man at The Hawthorns.
Another three points are vital for United as they prepare to host Chelsea, and a third consecutive victory provides that extra spark and belief to ensure that Sunday’s is a really tense and exciting affair, and one which we would every chance of getting another positive result.
A tricky tie with West Brom stand in the way of that, but with a relatively clean bill of health (in comparison to the pitiful hand’s dealt to us so far) should see not only a more complete and more rounded line-up, but also a more mature and measured performance. In the spirit of staying confident, I’ll go with a third consecutive 2-1 victory, in the hope that another three points sees a raucous atmosphere at Old Trafford on Sunday, and Jose squirming just a little at the prospect of losing his unbeaten record.
Probable line up: De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Herrera/Carrick, Di Maria, Mata, Falcao, Van Persie