Jaap Staam makes his return to Old Trafford as manager in the Third Round of the FA Cup on Saturday and will be hoping to hurt his old club. But Manchester United have been formidable in recent weeks and even with expected changes it’s going to take something exceptional for the Royals to progress.
We’ve been saying it all season, but given that Paul Pogba has been United’s driving force in Europe and the Premier League this season, maybe the time has come for him to sit a match out.
If their record-breaking signing were to get injured it would be devastating for United’s already slim title hopes. But more to the point, there’s a huge match with Liverpool on the horizon and Mourinho will want Pogba to be as sharp as possible for that fixture.
Bet on some Rotation
Who else will join Pogba on the sidelines is open to question. Mourinho mixed things up quite a lot over the Christmas period, using Lingard, Mata, Mkhitaryan and Martial on the wings.
The only ever-presents were Ibrahimovic, Herrera and Pogba, so we reckon there’s a good chance that all three will be rested on Saturday. It may give someone like Schneiderlin a chance to say his goodbyes ahead of a transfer this January.
But don’t put money on Memphis Depay to start as things seem irreparable between the Dutch winger and Mourinho.
Michael Carrick can’t be expected to handle a heavy workload either, and as he’s emerged as Mourinho’s man for the middle he may also be sidelined for Reading. This could open up a spot for Bastian Schweinsteiger, who hasn’t played a minute of first team football at United this season.
But interestingly the German World Cup winner did make the bench for last Saturday’s win against Middlesbrough. Most football fans will be glad to see one of the giants of the game getting a proper run out after his career has hit the buffers at United.
For most of the season we’ve been hearing that Mourinho is unhappy with his options at centre-back and was ready to make a big move in January. Well that plan seems to have gone out of the window.
Bailly has taken well to Premier League life, while Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have cut out the mistakes that used to haunt their games. Then you add the returning Chris Smalling and the versatile Daley Blind and it’s not just a strong group of defenders; it’s one of the best in the country.
One of the least popular players at the club is also likely to get the nod against the Royals. The sad thing about the Belgian’s time at Old Trafford is that his qualities have never been harnessed properly.
At his best for Everton, Fellaini was a low-key equivalent to Pogba, playing from box to box, but also adding terrifying stature on set pieces. At United he’s mostly played as the deepest midfielder, which doesn’t really suit him.
Whether he’d ever have been a star at Old Trafford is hard to say, but he’s been unfortunate to play at the club during a time of unprecedented instability and might have done well under Alex Ferguson.
Manchester United Predicted Lineup:
De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Rojo, Blind; Fellaini, Schweinsteiger; Lingard, Mata, Rashford; Rooney
Stamping his Authority
Last season was one to forget for the Royals, languishing down in 17th for a team that considers its rightful place to be the Premier League. Jaap Stam was brought in for his first management role and has steered Reading to third in the table at the season’s halfway point.
Most impressive is what the Dutchman has achieved on a shoestring budget by Championship standards. The team was overhauled in the summer with very little outlay, as Reading snapped up youngsters like John Swift from Chelsea, and Blackett from United.
Stam also drew on his knowledge of the Eredivisie to pick up a couple of unheralded Dutch players. The winger Roy Beerens has hardly missed a minute of Championship football this season.
One player who has shown up all over the pitch this season is Joey van den Berg, who was signed on a free from Heerenveen in the summer. The adaptable 30-year-old is as comfortable in midfield or defence and is known for being a bit of a firebrand.
But even more exciting than those bargain buys is the way that the manager has got his team playing Dutch-style pressing and passing football. In that sense Reading hark back to Swansea in 2010-11, as they lead the league for possession, which is just shy of 60%.
Reading have a patient, short passing game, straight out of Ajax where Stam spent the last three years coaching before moving to the Madejski Stadium.
No Real Star
Garath McCleary on the right wing has probably been the best player this season, but the more you look at Reading you realise that everything’s a team effort.
What will hold them back at Old Trafford, and hurt their promotion push, is the absence of a clinical striker. They’re reliant on the 35-year-old Yann Kermorgant, who typifies the team ethic but has only managed six in 19 at centre-forward this season.
Reading Predicted Teamsheet:
Al-Habsi; Gunter, McShane, Moore, Blackett; Williams, van den Berg; McCleary, Swift, Beerens; Kermorgant
When Will Manchester United vs Reading Take Place?
The match will be played at 12:30 GMT on January at Old Trafford.
Manchester United vs Reading Prediction
For all the good things about Reading under Stam, they’re still a work in progress. So far this season they have conceded 30 goals, and despite being near the top of the table have a goal difference of just +3.
As for Mourinho he will relish counter-attacking against a team that tries to press and keep possession, so we expect United to get the better of the Royals on Saturday, We’re backing the Red Devils to win this 3-1.
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