Manchester United vs. Bournemouth
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Fresh from their League Cup success at Wembley last weekend, Manchester United return to Premier League action on Saturday afternoon as they prepare to welcome Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth side to Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho’s time at Man United has not been without its bumps and bruises, but there is no question that the Red Devils are now heading in the right direction. Indeed, this weekend, they will look to extend a 16-game unbeaten run in the league, which stretches back to their 4-0 defeat at Chelsea in October, 2016.
The 20-time English champions have had to get accustomed to sixth position in the Premier League this season, but victory over Bournemouth would, temporarily at least, move the club into the top four and to within two points of second-place Tottenham Hotspur on the same number of matches.
Six home draws have cost Man United a spot higher up the table at this point of the season, but they have only suffered one league defeat at Old Trafford this term. Meanwhile, the Red Devils have a 100% home record against Bournemouth in all competitions – winning all five of their previous games against the South-Coast side at Old Trafford.
No team has lost fewer Premier League games than Man United (3) this season, but Mourinho’s side have drawn nine of their 25 matches. Stoke City, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham United, Liverpool and Hull City have all shared the points with Man United at Old Trafford, and Mourinho will be wary of welcoming a Bournemouth side that have struggled in recent months.
Indeed, the Cherries have lost their last four in the Premier League, while they have collected the fewest points (2) of any team in the top flight in 2017. That poor run of form has seen them drop into 14th position and they are now only four points clear of the relegation zone as the battle at the bottom heats up.
Man United have not actually been in Premier League action since beating Watford 2-0 at Old Trafford on February 11. Since then, they have played four games across three separate competitions, winning all four fixtures.
They booked their spot in the last-16 stage of the Europa League with a 4-0 aggregate success over Saint-Etienne, in addition to winning 2-1 at Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup to make the quarter-finals of the competition.
Last weekend, a revitalised Southampton, fresh from a warm-weather training camp, took the game to Man United in the final of the League Cup, but a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic header saw Mourinho’s side lift the trophy with a 3-2 success.
Ibrahimovic’s long-term future at Man United is still very much up in the air, but the Swede is in a strong bargaining position after netting 26 goals in 38 matches this season. At 35, the centre-forward is showing that he still has plenty to offer and Mourinho will be desperate to keep Ibrahimovic for at least one more season.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial have all been in impressive form in recent months, while Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba have provided a solid base from the middle of the park. Mourinho does still have issues to address, however, namely putting together his best defence.
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo formed an unlikely but impressive centre-back partnership for many weeks, but injuries forced that duo apart. Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia both have strong arguments to be part of Man United’s first-choice defence, but the other two positions are somewhat of a problem.
Stand-in skipper Chris Smalling has blown hot and cold in recent weeks, while Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian have shared left-back in the continued absence of Luke Shaw, who is fighting to save his Man United career. In the League Cup final, a defence of Valencia, Bailly, Smalling and Rojo shipped two goals and could have conceded four or five after being pulled all over the pitch.
That said, Man United have actually only conceded one goal in their seven matches at Old Trafford in 2017, and that was a penalty in the 1-1 draw with Liverpool in January.
The issue of Wayne Rooney remains, but the club captain has scored in each of his two previous appearances against Bournemouth. It seems likely that the 31-year-old will appear off the bench if he does at all this weekend, with Ibrahimovic, who never needs a rest, leading the line once again.
Arsenal and Liverpool will go head-to-head on Saturday night at Anfield, while Tottenham and Chelsea both have difficult fixtures in this set of matches. It has been a long time coming, but this should be the weekend that Man United return to the top four.
Jones is fit and available after recovering from a foot problem, although Mourinho might be wary about throwing the centre-back straight in, meaning that Bailly and Smalling could continue at the heart of the defence.
Mkhitaryan should overcome the hamstring complaint that forced him to miss the League Cup final, while Michael Carrick is pushing for a start after coming off the bench against Southampton last weekend.
Martial and Marcus Rashford will go head-to-head for a spot on Man United’s right, and Martial’s recent form could see the Frenchman make the XI.
Callum Wilson and Simon Francis remain on the sidelines for Bournemouth, but Jack Wilshere is expected to shake off a knock to start in central midfield, while Jordan Ibe is fit after a knee complaint.
Former Man United youngster Joshua King is also pushing for a spot in the Cherries XI, although Benik Afobe is expected to lead the line with support from Ryan Fraser and Marc Pugh.
Man United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Pogba, Herrera; Mata, Mkhitaryan, Martial; Ibrahimovic
Bournemouth: Boruc; Smith, Cook, Mings, Daniels; Arter, Surman, Wilshere; Fraser, Afobe, Pugh