Manchester United vs. West Bromwich Albion

Premier League

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Old Trafford

Manchester United’s pursuit of the top four in the Premier League will resume this weekend when they welcome Tony Pulis’ high-flying West Bromwich Albion to Old Trafford.

Unbeaten in the league since October 23, Jose Mourinho’s side are still outside of the Champions League positions in England’s top flight, but just four points separate them from fourth-place Liverpool, who have played two games more.

Man United entered the international break with a 3-1 success at Middlesbrough under their belt, and that victory finally saw the 20-time English champions move from sixth position, which had become their resting place this season.

Just seven points separate fifth-place Man United from second-place Tottenham Hotspur, while the Red Devils have one game in hand over Spurs and indeed third-place Manchester City, who have 57 points from their 28 league fixtures.

To suggest that April will be a defining month for Man United is quite possibly the understatement of the century. Mourinho’s side will play at least nine times next month, with a trip to Southampton in the Premier League still to be scheduled, although that fixture is likely to take place in May, depending on Europa League commitments.

After hosting West Brom, Man United will welcome in-form Everton to Old Trafford on Tuesday night, before visiting struggling Sunderland in the league next weekend. April 13 then brings the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final away to Anderlecht, before hosting Chelsea in the league on April 16.

Four days later, Man United will welcome Anderlecht for the second leg of their Europa quarter-final, before travelling to Burnley on April 23. Then comes the small matter of a trip to Man City on April 27, before ending the month three days later with a home game against Swansea City.

Mourinho has been careful with his predictions this season due to the crowded fixture list, but it is imperative that the club takes one match at a time. That one match this weekend is against a West Brom side that recorded a 3-1 win over Arsenal before the international break.

The victory over the Gunners saw West Brom consolidate eighth position in the table, and Pulis’ side are now seven points clear of ninth-place Stoke City as they look to equal their eighth-place finish from the 2012-13 campaign.

Incredibly, Man United have actually lost two of their last three home Premier League games against West Brom, which came after going unbeaten in the previous seven. The Red Devils were 2-0 winners when they travelled to the Hawthorns earlier this season, however, and recorded a 2-0 victory when the pair met at Old Trafford in the corresponding match last term.

Man United’s away form this term has been very impressive – winning eight of their 13 fixtures and only suffering two defeats. The Red Devils only have the eighth-best home record, however, drawing seven of their 14 Premier League matches at Old Trafford this season.

Man City are the only team to take all three points from Old Trafford this term, but Stoke City, Burnley, Arsenal, West Ham United, Liverpool, Hull City and Bournemouth have all shared the points with Man United on home soil.

Indeed, Man United have only scored with 9.1% of their shots in the Premier League this season, while just 20 home goals is a far inferior record to the likes of Tottenham (35), Chelsea and Liverpool (36), and Everton (34).

That said, Mourinho’s side have only conceded two goals in nine matches at Old Trafford in 2017 in all competitions, and both of those were penalties.

The Red Devils have also already had 33 more shots (463) in the Premier League this season then they managed during the whole 2015-16 campaign under Louis van Gaal, where possession was seemingly more important than goals and the excitement was just not there.

It could well be a defining weekend in the Premier League as second-place Tottenham face a tough trip to Burnley, Liverpool welcome Everton in the Merseyside derby, and Arsenal host Man City. Too often Man United have missed the chance to take advantage of their rivals dropping points, and that will be a genuine fear for the supporters once again on Saturday afternoon.

No side has lost fewer Premier League fixtures than Man United (3) this season, but no team has drawn more (10). There is no question that there has been improvement under Mourinho this season, but there are still plenty of issues to address as Man United look to return to the top of English football once again.

Team news

Man United will once again be without suspended duo Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera this weekend, but Mourinho also has injury problems – two of which occurred during the dreaded international break.

Indeed, Chris Smalling injured club teammate Phil Jones during England training last week, and the latter is expected to miss at least the next four weeks of the season with a broken toe.

Smalling, meanwhile, later picked up an unspecified injury in a separate incident, which has led to the former Fulham centre-back sporting a leg brace.

Paul Pogba will also miss out once again as he nurses a hamstring problem, but Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo are both expected to be available despite returning late from international duty in South America.

Anthony Martial, meanwhile, has recovered from injury and should start in an attacking four, but the Red Devils have been hit with the news that Juan Mata has been forced to undergo groin surgery, which could rule the Spaniard out for the remainder of the season.

As for West Brom, Matt Philips will again miss out with an ongoing hamstring problem, but Gareth McAuley and James Morrison have both been declared fit.

McAuley was a doubt for the match after picking up a foot problem on international duty for Northern Ireland, but the experienced centre-back has been passed fit by Baggies boss Pulis, while Morrison is available after missing the Arsenal clash with an ankle problem.

Salomon Rondon is also expected to start despite international commitments in South America, while England debutant Jake Livermore will continue in central midfield alongside former Red Devil Darren Fletcher.

Predicted line-ups

Man United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Fellaini; Martial, Mkhitaryan, Lingard; Rashford

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Morrison, Brunt, Livermore, Fletcher, Chadli; Rondon