MANCHESTER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return from suspension may be just the lift that Manchester United need as they attempt to improve their Premier League home form against Everton on Tuesday.
The former Paris Saint-Germain striker, United’s leading scorer this season, has missed three domestic matches through suspension – in which time Jose Mourinho’s team have been knocked out of the FA Cup and lost ground in the race for a top-four finish.
Ibrahimovic was certainly missed on Saturday as United drew at home in the league for the eighth time this season, as they were held 0-0 by West Bromwich Albion.
Time after time, Mourinho’s men have dominated possession at Old Trafford against visiting teams, yet failed to make their superiority count.
So it was at the weekend, as United enjoying 75 per cent of the possession yet managed only three shots on target.
In United’s defence, they were without not only Ibrahimovic, but also Ander Herrera, who was suspended too, plus injury victims Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, yet it was still a hugely disappointing display.
Mourinho was particularly angry with his front four of Jesse Lingard, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and may make changes beyond bringing back Ibrahimovic.
This is a busy period for United, who are scheduled to play nine matches during April.
If there is no sign of improvement in Premier League form against Everton or at Sunderland this coming Sunday, Mourinho has indicated that he will put his focus on winning the Europa League, and securing a Champions League place that way.
“After Sunderland, the Europa League comes, and then I don’t know,” he said.
“Then, it’s possible that you see me play in the Premier League with a team where I’m going to protect the players that I consider fundamental for the Europa League.
“But only, only if the results in the next matches put us in a situation where mathematically, it becomes almost impossible to do it.”
– Heavy criticism –
France midfielder Pogba should return against Everton, having been able to take part in a training session on the pitch after Saturday’s match.
He was left out of the squad against West Brom as a precaution because of the hamstring injury that kept him out of France’s matches against Luxembourg and Spain during the recent international break.
Herrera is also available after his ban, but Mata, Smalling and Jones will be longer-term absentees; the Spanish winger is expected to miss the remainder of the season following groin surgery last week.
Everton are seeking improvement themselves, having performed poorly in losing 3-1 at Liverpool in Saturday’s Merseyside derby.
Ross Barkley has come in for particularly heavy criticism in the media, having been very fortunate not to be sent off at Anfield for a dangerous challenge on Dejan Lovren when already on a booking.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman did say in public after the game that he was proud of his team’s performance.
But they have played much better than that over the last three months, losing just two of their last 13 league matches and looking comfortable in seventh place.
Koeman is short of defensive options, with Seamus Coleman recovering from a broken leg and Ramiro Funes Mori set to miss the final weeks of the season after suffering a knee injury while playing for Argentina.
A back three of Matthew Pennington, Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka did not work too well at Anfield, but Koeman may have to stick with that set-up.
“We won’t be taking too many positives from Saturday, but we’ve got a big game on Tuesday,” said Jagielka.