A dark cloud is looming over Old Trafford these days as Manchester United gear up for a set of ‘make or break’ fixtures that could determine the course of their season.
The Red Devils head to La Ceramica to encounter Villarreal in a potentially decisive Champions League Group F match in the wake of Ole Gunnar Solskajer’s sacking. By the way, Mauricio Pochettino is the betting favourite to be the next Man Utd manager (odds 1 / 2 at Sky Bet), according to the bookies’ current offers.
A series of underwhelming performances in the Premier League that culminated with the disheartening 4-1 defeat at Watford over the weekend spelt the end for the Norwegian’s three-year tenure at Old Trafford.
It will be up to the caretaker manager Michael Carrick to take care of Man United’s crunch Champions League match-up in the Spanish province of Castellon.
Heading into the penultimate Champions League round of fixtures, United and Villarreal are on seven points at the top of Group F, with third-placed Atalanta trailing by two.
Depending on the Italians’ result against Young Boys, a victory for either side would seal the top spot in this group and a place in the competition’s knock-out stages.
But a trip to Spain is not only about progressing into the Champions League last-16 for the first time since the 2018/19 campaign.
It’s also about building much-needed momentum ahead of United’s mouth-watering Premier League clash against Chelsea at the weekend.
Man United came from 1-0 down to beat Villarreal 2-1 in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford back in September, with Alex Telles and Cristiano Ronaldo fashioning the late turnaround.
While Ronaldo has his place in the starting line-up nailed down, Telles could return to action for the first time since his cameo appearance in a 2-0 derby loss to Manchester United on the stroke of the international break.
With Luke Shaw’s availability following a head trauma still hanging in the balance, the Brazilian could be Carrick’s go-to option to fill the void, given his attacking prowess.
Diogo Dalot, who replaced Shaw at Watford over the weekend, seems unreliable and could leave Old Trafford for another temporary move in January.
Since Carrick will be without the likes of Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani to injuries, Man United’s defence that allowed a staggering 20 shots against the Hornets will need to step up.
The Red Devils also faced 15 shots on goal and seven on target in the reverse fixture.
So despite the Spaniards’ paltry goalscoring return of late, United can ill-afford to take Villarreal lightly, especially considering they’ve yet to keep a clean sheet in the Champions League this season.
With Raphael Varane set to remain on the sidelines after failing to overcome a muscle injury, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof will be under scrutiny following their lacklustre display at Vicarage Road.
Cristiano Ronaldo – The X-factor
Man United will have decent chances of outplaying Villarreal as long as they manage to stay compact at the back and hold the likes of Arnaut Danjuma and Yeremi Pino at bay.
That’s because they have the Champions League all-time highest scorer on their ranks.
Ronaldo has found the net in all four group stage matches this season, extending his record-breaking tally to 139 goals in the competition proper.
The 36-year-old will have an added motive to maintain his scoring spree, as he could become the first player to score in his first five Champions League matches for an English club across a single campaign.
Premier League season on the line
Sunday’s Premier League action concludes at Stamford Bridge with a mammoth showdown between Chelsea and Man United.
Yet, the current situation in the standings, coupled with the Red Devils’ abysmal form, suggests this could be a field day for Thomas Tuchel’s team.
Going into the matchday, Chelsea are top of the Premier League table, courtesy of an intimidating 75% win ratio, while Man United sit in eight, 12 points adrift of their hosts.
Unlike the Old Trafford side, who cannot catch a break this term, the Londoners have been nothing short of outstanding, especially in defence.
Tuchel’s men have conceded a league-low four goals this Premier League campaign, 17 less than their United counterparts.
As should be the case at Villarreal, the Red Devils will have to rediscover their defensive mojo to stay competitive at Stamford Bridge against the division’s second most prolific attack.
However, in terms of scoring goals, United may need more than just Ronald’s magic to keep their three-match unbeaten Premier League run in west London going.
It is now a near-certainty that Cristiano’s return marginalised Bruno Fernandes, who cannot find his feet in England’s top-flight since Matchday 1.
United’s prospects of winning at Stamford Bridge will require the ‘old’ Bruno to show up, with the 27-year-old going through the most difficult time since arriving from Sporting Lisbon.
The Portuguese playmaker last scored in September, when the Red Devils hammered Newcastle United 4-1 on Ronaldo’s second league debut.
His dead balls and set-piece ability remain a threat, but the Theatre of Dreams faithful are desperate to see Fernandes returning to the scoresheet.
Carrick or whoever will be in charge of United in the capital will need Fernandes at his best to improve their chances of unlocking Tuchel’s rock-solid defensive united.