Manchester United travel to Turkey this week to play the reverse Europa League fixture against Fenebahce on the back of some uneasy form.
Goals have been hard to come by and a lack of wins in the Premier League have put the spotlight on the manager and some high profile players. Amidst the recent barren, winless league run, United did comprehensively beat Thursday’s opponents at home 4-1, and Mourinho will be hoping of more of the same. However, United have lost their last four away ties in Europe, three in the Europa League and one in the Champions League.
The established and well-worn clichés about travelling to Turkey have predictably come to the fore and even though United fans will be given an armed escort to and from the ground, on the football pitch at least, United should again have too much for their opponents. This is not to say that it will be as comfortable as it was in the first match.
Fenerbahce have won their last two matches without conceding a goal and in former United favourite Robin van Persie they have a player who is in fine form. The Dutchman has been directly involved in 13 goals in his last 12 games for the club, having scored nine times and provided four assists. Indeed, his consolation goal at Old Trafford two weeks ago was met with the customary applause and respect returning Old Trafford players are often given.
How will United line up? In my last preview, I intimated that it may be time for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be ‘rested’ and given an opportunity to reflect and recharge. While he has been unequivocally profligate in front of goal, his performance with the ball at his feet playing deeper, in pockets of space, has been very encouraging. That he has vision and guile is not up for debate and if Mourinho is intent on continuing to allow his talisman to play himself into goal scoring form, this game may be made for Ibrahimovic to play as a number 10 and allow Rashford or Martial to lead the line.
Without the injured Bailly and Valencia, were Mourinho to freshen up the defence then Timothy Fosu-Mensah could get a game at right full back. It would not surprise me were Ashley Young given a start either. More intriguing is the ongoing, ‘will he, won’t he feature?’ saga surrounding summer signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It would be a shock were he to make the starting line-up given he has not made recent squads, let alone played any minutes. By contrast, youngsters Joe Riley and Axel Tuanzebe trained with the first team squad this week and could feature. In particular, defender Tuanzebe has the better chance of playing of the two given United’s current injuries in defence and this would be an opportune moment to blood the highly rated youngster.
The hosts have no notable injuries to contend with and will welcome back on-loan Sunderland striker Jeremain Lens to the team who missed the match at Old Trafford. He returned from injury last weekend and scored in a 5-0 win.
Brazilian striker Fernandao and full-back Gregory van der Wiel returned to first team training and could return to the squad for Thursday’s game. If fit, both are likely to feature for Dick Advocaat’s side.
This will be the third time Fenerbahce will have entertained United and with one win each, both sides will be eager to take the three points that would all but secure qualification to the next phase of the competition. United currently lie second in the group, level on points with leaders Feyenoord.
For all the disappointment after the Burnley match, the conclusion that must be drawn for United fans is to not dwell on the result but consider the performance. As fans we should compare what we are seeing at the moment with what was served up last season. United created plenty of goal scoring chances and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the opposition goalkeeper will never make the number of quality of saves he made in one game for the rest of his career. By the same token, United players are unlikely to miss as many chances in one game again this season.
United were relentless in going for the win and while it was not a patch on the swashbuckling teams of yesteryear, it was far better than what we have had to endure over the past three seasons.
Patience and an acceptance that there is still much work to do with the squad and team is what is needed and less of the tabloid-esque overreaction. Indeed, if United create just a quarter of the chances created last weekend, United fans should be confident their team will come away with a morale boosting win on Thursday evening.