Thursday night represents the long-awaited return to European football for Manchester United. Many are dreading the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men are playing in the Europa League instead of the Champions League this season, but nonetheless, there is plenty to look forward to in Europe’s secondary continental competition.
The reduced stakes of group stage games, combined with the fact that United will often be playing lesser opposition, allows Solskjaer to involve younger players and fringe players in his setup.
However, with plenty to play for as a Champions League group stage qualification berth greets the competition winner, United can also be expected to field a competitive side. Striking the balance between squad rotation and performance level in this competition could be the difference between a great season and an underwhelming one for Solskjaer, and knowing that, he is likely to start with a generally risk-averse setup resembling the following.
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Over the past few seasons, Sergio Romero has established himself as one of the most reliable squad options in the side, enabling United’s 2016/17 Europa League triumph with a series of excellent shot-stopping performances in deputy of David de Gea. The same is expected this season, with de Gea starting Premier League matches and Romero stepping in for other competitions.
It is somewhat of a shame that injuries to Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw will deprive them a chance of starting against Astana, and worse, force Aaron Wan-Bissaka to forego the rest he likely needs. However, he will be the least of the concerns for United this Thursday and eyeing a rest in next week’s League Cup tie against Rochdale.
The fact Tuanzebe tends to sit on the bench more often than Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo says enough about his potential, and Solskjaer is unlikely to waste an opportunity to play the young English defender. Tuanzebe went from strength to strength in United’s reserves, and more recently, on loan at Aston Villa. He has plenty to learn, but his ball-playing ability is already an asset that most of United’s defenders do not boast.
It is difficult to predict whether Solskjaer will persist with experience and play Harry Maguire to help guide Tuanzebe, but with Wan-Bissaka likely to be retained in the side, he can afford to take a risk with Jones. Eric Bailly’s injury will give Jones a chance to prove he still belongs at United after being entirely excluded from United’s setup this season.
Like Wan-Bissaka, Young would almost certainly be rested if either Dalot or Shaw returned, but for now, he appears the most likely to play. The 34-year-old has been reliable in Shaw’s absence and, after receiving quite the criticism last season, is reminding everyone that he can be serviceable in many positions if he isn’t the main option in any of them.
What is almost certain is that Scott McTominay needs a rest. Whether that means Matic will start or Solskjaer will try youngster James Garner is unclear, but the pragmatic option is to start with the former. Matic needs a good display after a dire stretch of form that has now lasted a few months.
While Fred’s substitute cameo against Leicester was enough evidence to suggest he will take Nemanja Matic’s place in the first team, he was so uninvolved before the weekend that he remains likely to start against Astana. Solskjaer will be keenly analyzing his performance, perhaps with hope that he can move Paul Pogba into attacking midfield when the Frenchman returns with the diminutive Brazilian pairing McTominay in midfield.
It is a testament to Greenwood’s ability that despite being just 17 years of age, he should start this match. While it is easy to be excited about his talent, United fans need to remember to temper expectations and give him time, while Solskjaer needs to ensure he is protected from major fitness concerns.
United fans have been clamouring for Gomes to be involved for a few weeks now, and with Juan Mata and Andreas Pereira both playing due to Pogba and Anthony Martial’s recent absences, Thursday could finally be the day. Gomes is a technical player with the ability to unlock defences in a multitude of ways, though many believe it will take him some time to adjust to the physicality of senior football.
Lingard has struggled for form in 2019, often looking anonymous, but a chance to play against entirely inferior opposition should invigorate the England international to open his tally. Perhaps at his best in a central role behind a striker, it would not be a surprise to see Lingard out wide in this match to accommodate his teammates.
Like Wan-Bissaka, the ideal scenario would see Rashford rested for Thursday’s game, but given all the absences, it is likely Solskjaer will play at least one player that he trusts to score goals. If Martial makes an early return, it would not be a surprise to see Rashford rested after putting in shifts every week recently.
Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Romero; Wan-Bissaka, Tuanzebe, Jones, Young; Matic, Fred; Greenwood, Gomes, Lingard; Rashford