Manchester United v Southampton | Sunday 11 January | Old Trafford | 18:00
To Win (90mins)
Twenty matches into Van Gaal’s revolution and the Dutchman has woken up a sleeping red giant at Old Trafford. Currently third on the table, their absence from the Champions League looks a one-season affair, rather than a sign of things to come. They’ve gone on their best run since Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge - unbeaten in their last 10 matches with six victories. Expectations have been raised. Yet United have rarely been excellent. Winning without playing particularly well is often the hallmark of champions and although they’ll probably have to wait this year, they could give it a full go next season. But there is a realistic chance of an FA Cup run, maybe even an opportunity to win it for the first time since 2004. Van Gaal has reason to be proud of what he has already achieved and has brought in exciting signings such as Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, as well as improving players such as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. He now seems to be getting the best out of Juan Mata and Robin van Persie, while giving opportunities to young players like James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair. Injuries to Luke Shaw and Rafael in United’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Yeovil last weekend, to add to Young and Valencia, mean United are without any fit wing-backs so there is every chance of switching back to a 4-4-2 formation.
Wayne Rooney is United’s joint top scorer in the Premier League along with Van Persie though the England captain has been masterful in his present role in midfield in the absence of recognised midfielders. He has recorded four assists this season with only Di Maria having more in the team, and is enjoying the role of providing as well as finishing chances. There is always some amount of tenaciousness to Rooney’s game that rattles the opposition making him a constant threat and that would be crucial to open up the tightest defence in the league.
Many believed that Southampton’s strong run this season had come to an end when the club suffered four consecutive league losses. However, with wins over Everton and Burnley followed by a tidy display against Chelsea and a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Arsenal, Koeman’s boys have sneaked up to fourth spot with 36 points. Koeman has been adaptable and fluid in his personnel and tactical selections and there appears to be a real grit and confidence about the way the team are playing. European football is a very realistic target for the south coast team, whose approach and style have won plaudits as well as points. The Saints are starting to get the respect they deserve, perhaps it is a little forced, but having turned their form around of late and getting themselves back into the top four, pundits and fans alike have started to accept that this is not a fluke.
New signing Eljero Elia from Werder Bremen is available to make his debut for the Saints and should come straight into the line-up in place of the injured Senegalese winger Saido Mane who is ruled out for up to 4-6 weeks with a calf injury. Koeman will be hoping that Elia can brush off his bad boy reputation and play a big part in Southampton’s race to secure a Champions League spot for next season. With Man United’s home form being excellent this season the pacey winger will have to be at his best if he wants to cause the Red Devils some problems. Graziano Pelle remains the danger man having netted Southampton's only goal against Man United in the December defeat, although the performances of Dusan Tadic continue to shine along with Victor Wanyama who should feature alongside Morgan Schneiderlin, who has been linked with a move to Liverpool following the news that Steven Gerrard will depart the club at the end of the season.
VERDICT: Man United 15/20
Manchester United are favourites at 15/20 while Southampton are priced at 34/10. The Red Devils have proved hard to beat at home this season having won eight of their 10 matches played, losing just once in their opening defeat to Swansea. United have improved tremendously since then and have looked deadly in attack, scoring 22 goals. The Saints have struggled for consistency away from home, claiming just four wins and suffering four defeats from nine matches. Southampton just can’t seem to beat United and at 15/20, United are a gift.
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