For a game they have to win to have a chance of preserving their Premier League status Hull City are without the injured Curtis Davies, Gaston Ramirez and Mohamed Diame, while Jake Livermore has been suspended by the club after he failed a drugs test.
It may be, with a fourth-place finish effectively guaranteed (it would take United to win, Arsenal to lose at home to West Bromwich Albion and a goal-difference swing of seven for United to climb to third and so avoid a play-off to reach the Champions League group stage next season), that Louis van Gaal would have experimented with his selection anyway but, not for the first time this season, his hand is forced by injury. Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Luke Shaw are all definitely out, while there are doubts over David De Gea and Jonny Evans.
When Hull beat Crystal Palace away and Liverpool at home in successive games last month, it seemed they were clawing their way to salvation. But others at the bottom have all started winning as well and the limp performance in a 1-0 home defeat to Burnley a fortnight ago may prove to have been fatal. There were positive signs at Tottenham last weekend, but having fallen behind, Hull never really looked like getting back in the game: they’ve now lost three in a row.
United have faltered ever since Carrick’s injury late on in the derby win over Manchester City: after losing three in a row they squeaked a victory over Crystal Palace before last Sunday’s tame draw with Arsenal. United were comfortable 3-0 winners over Hull at Old Trafford in November.
HULL’S ATTACKING THREAT
Defensively Hull have the record of a mid-table side (they’ve conceded fewer than Tottenham) but only three sides have scored fewer goals than them this season. They’ve scored only seven goals in their last 11 games, an indication of the failure of their attempts to bolster their attacking options last summer when a number of creative players were brought in – Hatem Ben Arfa, Gaston Ramirez and Abel Hernandez.
None have really succeeded and, although Dame N’Doye has contributed five goals since his arrival from Lokomotiv Moscow in Janaury, Hull are still very dependent on Nikica Jelavic, who looked rusty on his return from injury against Spurs. With a less than incisive midfield three, much of Hull’s recent threat has come from their marauding left wing-back, Robbie Brady, and specifically his set-play delivery.
It’s remarkable how the balance United seemed to have when they beat Tottenham, Liverpool and City in successive games seems to have vanished with the absence of a couple of key individuals. The importance of Carrick has become a regular theme, but it remains true that without him and Rooney United look a shadow of the side that a couple of months ago threatened to claim second.
Daley Blind will presumably operate in Carrick’s role in front of the back four, with either Marcos Rojo or Tyler Blackett at left-back. Falcao or Robin van Persie will probably contest the centre-forward position unless, given that both could leave the club in the summer, Van Gaal opts to give another opportunity to James Wilson, who has vanished since a 17-minute substitute appearance against Burnley in February.
THE BATTLE ON THE FLANKS
Hull’s system is essentially quite blocking: three defenders, three midfielders, two forwards, all of which essentially hold their lines. Such fluidity as Hull produce comes from their wing-backs, Ahmed Elmohamady on the right and Brady on the left.
Their forward charges may leave space for Juan Mata and Ashley Young to exploit; certainly the two wingers will have a job to do in tracking their respective wing-backs. Whoever dominates that battle will probably be the more threatening.
United are out of sorts and have nothing to play for. Hull are desperately scrapping to save themselves and may even be boosted by the fact that they’re playing a team of United’s stature. In a strange sense the pressure is off them: if they go down, nobody will put it down to what happens on Sunday – it’s the rest of the season to blame. Newcastle’s on-going haplessness offers hope: there is a chance Hull can get out of this. United have the poorest away record of any side in the top eight.
Admittedly, Hull have never previously won a Premier League game in May, but with Jelavic perhaps coming back to fitness they’re probably worth backing +0.25 on the Asian lines at 1.93.