Two wins and two draws in the Premier League, and success in the first game of the Europa League in what was meant to be the toughest fixture in Group H. Unbeaten so far with potentially an even more daunting challenge this weekend when the Red Devils visit the London Stadium. Such a shame we won’t be able to field our strongest side with Antonio being forced to sit this one out after what I thought was a needless red card at Southampton last Saturday. It will be interesting to see how David Moyes constructs the team without our number 9, and no obvious replacement in that position without changing the style of play. Antonio ran the Croatians ragged in Zagreb on Thursday evening and will be sorely missed on Sunday.
The 2-0 win to take us to the top of Europa League Group H after the first game was well deserved, and David Moyes deserves massive credit for the way he has transformed this squad since his return to the club. This was never going to be an easy fixture against a Zagreb side used to competing in Europe. It was just a few months ago that they put Tottenham to the sword beating them 3-0 in the round of 16 second leg in last season’s Europa League to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg to progress to the last eight, where they went out of the competition against the Spaniards, Villareal. Dinamo had topped their group with 14 points from four wins and two draws so have considerable recent experience in European competition. They have also made an excellent start in this season’s Croatian League and currently sit on top with 16 points from their opening seven games.
This puts the strength of our performance into perspective. Even with a changed team, all of the players performed well and knew how they fitted into the side, and the roles they needed to play. The unchanged midfield partnership of Rice and Soucek was the springboard to our success, and how good was Rice when intercepting the ball in his own half and striding more than half the length of the pitch to score the second goal through the keeper’s legs? The goal reminded me of his strike in the final game of last season when a similar run led to the third goal in our victory over Southampton that sealed our sixth-place finish enabling us to qualify for this season’s Europa League.
Much credit too must go to the whole team for defending as a unit when we didn’t have the ball, and especially the back four who didn’t allow the home side to have a single shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. I thought that Fredericks had an excellent game, using his speed to great effect when going forward, and conversely when getting back to recover the ball. On the other flank the rejuvenated (under Moyes) Cresswell was as steady as ever. He continues to impress now that he appears to be fully recovered from the injury he suffered a couple of seasons back. But the defensive highlight for me was the massively impressive Zouma who dealt with everything comfortably, forming an excellent partnership with Diop. We have four centre backs vying for two places in the starting eleven when we play with a back four. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zouma lining up alongside Ogbonna for the game on Sunday, although this would be harsh on Dawson who hasn’t done a lot wrong since he was signed. On the other hand I wonder if for this game, with the absence of Antonio, Moyes may consider playing with three centre backs? I don’t think he will and I would anticipate this starting line-up for the game.
Fabianski; Coufal, Zouma, Ogbonna, Cresswell; Rice, Soucek; Fornals, Vlasic, Benrahma; Bowen.
If my prediction for the starting line-up is correct then the choice of players to sit on our bench is also looking stronger than it has for years with a first-class international goalkeeper in Areola, Diop and Dawson as centre backs, and Fredericks and the fit-again Masuaku as well as Johnson covering the full back positions, although I believe Moyes sees Masuaku more as an attacking wing back / midfielder. Noble and Kral seem the likely cover for Rice and Soucek, with Lanzini and Yarmolenko the other attacking options in the absence of Antonio. Not quite two like for like players to cover all over the pitch, as they have at Manchester City and Chelsea for example, but nevertheless stronger than in recent times. Let’s hope that some youngsters from the Development Squad can make a name for themselves and become involved at the top level as the season progresses.
Manchester United have been strengthened by the addition of world-class Ronaldo, who might not quite be the player he once was, but nevertheless he is still a massive goalscoring threat. He has hit the ground running and already started scoring goals in his first week. Let’s hope we can keep him quiet on Sunday. Manchester United are favourites, particularly with the additional rest-time from midweek endeavours of 48 hours compared to ourselves, but I still believe we can beat them, despite Antonio not being available, although it will be tough to do so without our in-form number nine. Others will have to step up to score, and I fancy Jarrod Bowen to do so.
Bookmakers certainly don’t rate our chances highly, but as an unbeaten team playing at home after a midweek success in Europe playing against a Manchester United team who surprisingly lost to Young Boys of Switzerland, the odds of a home victory at 7/2 are certainly more enticing than the odds-on chances given to the visitors. The odds for West Ham winning 2-0 are 18/1, or a 2-1 victory is priced around 12/1.
I always enjoy a fun bet at long odds that rarely comes off, but you never know. Ronaldo to score the first goal and then West Ham to come back and win the match is priced at 50/1. Ronaldo to score the first goal and West Ham to win the match 2-1 is around 90/1. Or if you fancy Bowen to score the first goal and West Ham to win the odds are 20/1. Or perhaps Bowen to score first and West Ham to win 2-1 you can get 87/1. Rice to score the first goal and West Ham to win 2-1 is priced at 342/1. For a bit of fun I’ll choose one of those. What are the chances?