Chris Smalling is still doubtful with his toe injury for Manchester United while it seems unlikely Eric Bailly will be risked, despite his earlier than expected return after a knee problem, meaning another run-out for the Marcos Rojo-Phil Jones central defensive pairing, unless Daley Blind is recalled. Luke Shaw is a doubt, and seems to have lost his manager’s trust anyway, but Wayne Rooney, having missed Sunday’s draw against Everton through suspension is available again.
United need just a draw to go through, and would progress if they lose and Feyenoord fail to beat Fenerbahce at home. Zorya are already out, having taken just two points from their five games so far. Their goal-difference is only -4, though, and they’ve drawn both home games, so this is far from a pushover. Nor can United rely on Zorya’s focus being elsewhere: beating United is still a motivation for a mid-table side in the Ukrainian league. That said, although Zorya lie third in the Ukrainian league, their 3-2 defeat at home by Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk at the weekend took their run without a win in all competitions to six games.
United’s form is mystifying. They are playing better and better, and results are coming, just not in the Premier League, in which they’ve won just one of their last eight games. Sunday’s draw at Everton was yet another match in which they were the better side but failed to win, Jose Mourinho’s old gift for killing games having seemingly deserted him. But before there’s too much credence placed in his “unluckiest team in the league” shtick, it’s worth remembering that United’s goal was handed to them by some kamikaze goalkeeping from Maarten Stekelenburg.
The game at Old Trafford at the end of September is the only previous meeting between the teams, United coming out on top thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second-half header, forced in after Wayne Rooney had miscued a volley. United have played Ukrainian sides on seven previous occasions and remain unbeaten.
Mourinho has tinkered with his midfield in recent weeks, the introduction of Michael Carrick offering greater protection in front of the back four and there are signs that the triangle with Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba is beginning to work, allowing the Frenchman to drop a little deeper than if he plays as a classic number 10, something that makes the most of his great array of talents. But that’s assuming Mourinho picks a full-strength side, which he may not, particularly given United face Tottenham on Sunday. It may be that Bastian Schweinsteiger takes a further step towards rehabilitation at the back of midfield, or Morgan Schneiderlin could be recalled, or Marouane Fellaini may even be given the chance to exorcise his concession of the late penalty on Sunday, if Carrick is rested.
Mourinho has said that, at 35, Carrick can no longer play two games in four days, but he did last week; this would seem the ideal opportunity to give him a break.
It’s safe to assume that United will line up in a 4-2-3-1 and so will the home side. Their coach Yuriy Vernydub has historically preferred the formation and used it at Old Trafford. They had some success there, largely restricting United with Ihor Chaykovskyi and Dmytro Hrechyshkin a solid block in front of the back four. Zorya’s method is simple: sit six outfielders deep and look to spring forward through the pace of the wide men, Oleksandr Koravayev and Ivan Petriak.
There’s no great need for United to overcommit but that means their full-backs, presumably Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia, have to be relatively restrained.
Where most players need rest, Rooney always seems to need games to keep him in peak condition so, having missed Sunday’s draw at Goodison Park, he is likely to start. It seems probable that he could be brought in for Ibrahimovic, to keep the Swede fresh for Sunday. There have been recent signs of a return to form.
Zorya’s form has not been great but they seem extremely long at 10.5 to win. There may be some value there but the danger is knowing just how motivated they will be. What seems likely is a tight game and it may be that it peters out in the second half if scores are level with both teams content with a draw. For that reason, the value seems to lie in backing a low-scoring game. Under-2.5 goals is 2.05, which looks extremely generous given both Zorya’s home matches so far have finished 1-1.