Manchester United travel to West Ham United on Sunday, following back-to-back 1-0 victories against Leicester City in the Premier League and FC Astana in the Europa League.
The injury problems are mounting for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side though, and it won’t be long until opposition teams start to take advantage of his wafer-thin squad.
Paul Pogba is set to miss the trip to London and extend his period on the side lines, which is a huge blow.
United are so reliant on the Frenchman that although he divides opinion amongst supporters and pundits, he’s still by far United’s most important outfield player and capable of damaging teams almost single-handedly.
The crime is not this over-reliance on Pogba, it’s the failure of the board to replace midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera who left earlier in the calendar year.
One player for the here and now, and someone central to Solskjaer’s plans, is Marcus Rashford, who won and converted the penalty against Leicester City last weekend in a boost for bettors who backed him to take the club’s next penalty after misses from both him and Pogba already this season.
But against the side from Kazakhstan on Thursday evening, Rashford was given a lesson in finishing by the younger United academy product, Mason Greenwood.
Rashford had already missed a series of good opportunities which could have put United out of sight before half-time before Greenwood scored the winner in the second half.
There’s little doubt that Rashford’s pace and direct approach can cause problems, but he must be sharper in front of goal, and cleverer in the final third if he’s to make it to the very top.
The additional pressure for Rashford, is that he’ll always be measured against great former Old Trafford strikers, and in comparison to the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andy Cole, Robin van Persie and the rest, players the United faithful are used to watching, he remains some way off.
2/2 in Rashford that he has to keep playing him through the centre. What we saw tonight is that even when he gets chances, he’s simply not clinical enough. He’s an impact sub/wide forward at best who happens to find himself on a bumper contract and as #MUFC’s senior striker.— Tom McDermott (@MrTomMcDermott) September 19, 2019
So against Astana, it was left to Greenwood, in front of the Stretford End, to beat his marker, before effortlessly slotting through their goalkeeper’s legs to score his first senior goal for the club, and with it become United’s youngest ever scorer in Europe.
Either side of his goal, United were sloppy, but Solskjaer and his staff will have to decide whether or not to put Greenwood in from the first whistle on Sunday at West Ham United, or place him back on the bench where he’s started every league game this campaign.
United will need all the help they can get against the Hammers, having only won once there since 2016, and in this fixture 12 months ago, they were comprehensively beaten 3-1 in what turned out to be one of Jose Mourinho’s final acts in charge.
United were written off by many before the Leicester City match in game week five, but Brendan Rodgers’ side didn’t take advantage of Pogba’s absence, a mistake the wily Manuel Pellegrini will try to avoid.
Sebastien Haller, West Ham’s own forward, played the lone role in the 0-0 draw against Aston Villa, but in general, the signs have been good, and his double at Watford before the international break, was a glimpse of what he’s capable of, if the ball is delivered into the right areas.
In defence and especially at Villa Park, West Ham showed a stubbornness that has often been questioned.
Arthur Masuaku was dismissed with 23 minutes left after picking up two bookings, but instead of wilting as they might have done last season, they dug in with 10 men, and on another day might have left the midlands with all three points, rather than just the one.
The dream for Solskjaer’s United is to be playing in the Champions League in 12 months. The immediate challenge is to plot the best route there.
A first three points of the season away from home would be a good start and cap off a decent week, but the form book at West Ham suggests United fans might have to settle for another point on the road, at best.