Middlesbrough vs. Manchester United

Premier League

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Riverside Stadium

Europa League quarter-finalists Manchester United will refocus their attention on the Premier League this weekend when they travel to struggling Middlesbrough, who sacked head coach Aitor Karanka on Thursday afternoon.

Boro are winless in their last 10 Premier League matches and with the club currently sitting down in 19th position in the table, the board took the decision to relieve the Spaniard of his duties after three and a half years at the club.

The Riverside outfit have incredibly only scored 19 league goals this season, but they are only three points from safety and interim boss Steve Agnew will be looking to get his tenure off to a positive start against Man United on Sunday.

This is actually Man United’s first league match since they drew 1-1 at home to 10-man Bournemouth on March 4. That result kept them down in sixth position in the table, and the Red Devils are currently six points off the top four entering this weekend’s fixtures, although they have two games in hand over fourth-place Liverpool, who travel to Manchester City on Sunday afternoon.

Everton in seventh are now just two points behind Man United, although the Toffees have also played two more league matches than Jose Mourinho’s side. The top four is still very much open for the Red Devils, but an incredibly crowded fixture list means that fatigue is a real concern at this stage of the season.

Indeed, this is already the team’s fifth game in March across three separate competitions. After drawing with Bournemouth, they travelled to Russia to take on Rostov in the first leg of their last-16 Europa League clash, before visiting Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on Monday night.

A 1-1 draw away to Rostov in the first leg of their European tie set Man United up nicely for the return match at Old Trafford, and the job was completed on Thursday night when Juan Mata scored the only goal in a 1-0 win. It was not a match that will live long in the memory, but the task was completed courtesy of a 2-1 aggregate success.

The 20-time English champions were knocked out of the FA Cup, however, as they suffered a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea. Mourinho’s side, in a 3-4-3 formation, actually had the better of the early stages, but Ander Herrera’s controversial red card in the 35th minute turned the tie and it was the Premier League leaders that marched on to the semi-finals courtesy of N’Golo Kante’s long-range effort.

After Thursday’s 1-0 win over Rostov, Mourinho claimed that his team would ‘probably lose on Sunday’ due to the crowded fixture list. The Portuguese does seem to be creating an ‘us against them’ mentality at Old Trafford, but that might be just what this set of players need to thrive going forward.

Man United’s next league win will be their 600th in the Premier League and they will be looking to become the first side to reach that landmark this weekend. Indeed, their recent record against Middlesbrough is strong – remaining unbeaten in their last 12 meetings with Boro in all competitions, recording seven wins in the process.

The Red Devils have also won on four of their last six Premier League trips to the Riverside – a stadium where they have scored in each of their last 14 league matches. The omens are good for the Red Devils this weekend, although injuries and suspensions has left them short entering the match.

For all Middlesbrough’s problems this season, they actually have the joint-fifth best defence in the league and have conceded fewer goals (30) than Man United’s top-four challengers Arsenal and Liverpool. It is down the other end where they have really struggled – managing just three goals in their last 10 league matches and 19 overall.

The former Championship side actually led 1-0 at Old Trafford in the reverse match earlier this season courtesy of a 67th-minute effort from Grant Leadbitter. However, Anthony Martial levelled the scores in the 85th minute, before Paul Pogba found a winner for the home side less than 60 seconds later.

Man United now have two Premier League matches to rearrange – Manchester City (A) and Southampton (A) – but the international break has arrived at a good time for Mourinho’s side, who are in desperate need of a rest.

After the international break, they will welcome West Bromwich Albion to Old Trafford on April 1, and next month will also include a two-legged Europa League quarter-final. If March has been bad in terms of the number of matches, April is going to be worse with at least eight games due to take place.

No team has drawn more Premier League matches than Man United (10) this season, but no team has suffered fewer defeats (3). It is difficult to be too positive about a team down in sixth position in the table, but there is no question that Man United are moving in the right direction and a win over Middlesbrough would certainly keep them in the hunt for a top-four position.

The Europa League, which brings an automatic Champions League spot if won, has developed into a very important competition for Mourinho’s side, although it might well harm their chances of catching the teams above them in the league.

Including Everton, there are five teams battling for the three positions behind Chelsea, who are marching on to the title. Tottenham Hotspur, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal have all had their problems in 2017 though and it is shaping up to be a fascinating battle for the top four in the final weeks of the campaign.

Team news

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera will both miss out for Man United through suspension, while Paul Pogba (thigh) and Daley Blind (concussion) both picked up knocks against Rostov on Thursday night, and neither are expected to feature this weekend.

Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini could start as the midfield two in a 3-4-3 formation, while David de Gea, Ashley Young and Phil Jones are all pushing for recalls to the starting XI following the team’s Europa League exploits.

Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial are both still struggling with injuries, however, leaving Mourinho with little room for manoeuvre when it comes to change in the final third and as a result, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are expected to start once again.

As for Boro, on-loan Arsenal defender Calum Chambers is still out with a foot problem, but stand-in head coach Agnew otherwise has a full-fit squad to choose from this weekend.

Victor Valdes and Fabio are both expected to start against their former club, while Alvaro Negredo, who has six of the team’s 19 Premier League goals this season, should return to the starting XI after being left on the bench during their 2-0 defeat at Stoke City in the league last time out.

Predicted line-ups

Middlesbrough: Valdes; Fabio, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Clayon, De Roon, Leadbitter; Traore, Negredo, Ramirez

Man United: De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Rojo; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Young; Mkhitaryan, Rashford, Mata