Manchester United drew 0-0 with Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium last night in what was essentially an audition for the Europa League final in terms of Jose Mourinho’s fringe players. With a number of injuries, places in the starting XI were up for grabs and RealSport will take a look and who impressed ahead of May 24th’s final in Stockholm.
With Romero having started ten of Manchester United’s 13 Europa League fixtures this season, it would be surprising to see David de Gea replace Sergio Romero for the final, considering that Romero remains undefeated in all of his starts in the competition. The two games United have lost have been when de Gea’s in goal. Moreover, the Argentine has conceded only three goals in those ten games, keeping seven clean sheets.
Against Southampton, he more than enhanced his case for a start in Stockholm with a number of key saves to keep the Saints at bay. He saved Manolo Gabbiadini’s penalty after Eric Bailly was adjudged to have handled the ball in the penalty area and made a total of six saves overall to keep his second clean sheet in two Premier League starts. Mourinho has confirmed that third-choice ‘keeper Joel Pereira will start against Crystal Palace next week, but expect to see Romero back between the sticks against Ajax. He’s earned it.
The situation in defence
A suspension for key central defender Bailly is more than a spanner in the works of Mourinho’s masterplan, so last night was, too, an audition for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones as the Portuguese boss ponders how best to set up his team defensively. With Marcos Rojo also side-lined, the duo could well become Plan A. Jones, for instance, impressed greatly making nine clearances, three interceptions and four blocks, more than any of his teammates.
Antonio Valencia will return at right back, but then there’s the situation on the opposite flank. Mourinho could call upon one of Daley Blind, Ashley Young or Matteo Darmian for the final, though if he decides to start Blind in the centre instead of Smalling or Jones, then his options become slightly more limited.
Juan Mata was an unused substitute in both legs of United’s semi-final with Celta Vigo, so it was imperative that he used his start last night to stake his claim for a role in the final, but he struggled to impact the game as he usually does. He was largely a peripheral figure, making 39 passes through the game, which was only seven more than Romero. Moreover, Mata only had two touches in the opposition box, demonstrating the limited impact he had before he was substituted, as well as hitting a second-half effort well over the bar. He also seemed to be injured following his withdrawal, so his chances of starting the final are looking slim.
Manchester United’s captain and all-time top scorer has started the last four games for the Red Devils, scoring twice in this time against Tottenham and Swansea in a defeat and draw respectively. However, he rarely threatened Fraser Forster last night, but did create two chances that Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial should have done better with.
Aside from his limited goal threat, Mourinho would be impressed by the 31-year-old’s work rate off the ball. The England international made more high-intensity sprints (57) than any of his teammates and ranked second for distance covered through the game. With Marcus Rashford nailed on to start, Mourinho is unlikely to find room for his captain as, truth be told, he doesn’t add much to the team anymore. He’d be a better option off the bench should the boss wish to call upon him.
Anthony Martial has cut a frustrated figure at Old Trafford this season and it’s likely to only get worse after a disappointing performance at St Mary’s didn’t do him any favours in terms of selection for the final. Martial was the one bright spark against Tottenham last week and was unlucky not to score, but he was wasteful last night, putting both of his two shots off target. One did hit the post, however, but he really should have hit the target.
Martial also gave the ball away at the edge of his area, forcing Jones into a foul on Cedric Soares. Fortunately Romero saved the resulting free-kick, sparing Martial the ultimate embarrassment, but it’s these sort of incidents that a defensively-minded manager such as Mourinho won’t forget. There is one spot available, though. With Mkhitaryan and Rashford more than likely to start, the left flank is free for one of Martial, Mata or Jesse Lingard.
Who should start in the Europa League final? Let us know in the comments section below.