Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t take another risk with team selection as Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred and Bruno Fernandes return for Club Bruges second leg as Man United embark on month that will define their season
- Man United play Club Bruges at Old Trafford on Thursday with scores tied at 1-1
- Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made six changes for last week’s away first leg
- United were second best but escaped with a draw thanks to Anthony Martial
- Wan-Bissaka, Fred and Fernandes are likely to return as Solskjaer takes no risks
- United are entering crucial few weeks in pursuit of Champions League return
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is unlikely to take any risks over his team selection as Manchester United look to kick on in Europe on Thursday night.
There was criticism of the manager’s decisions after he made six changes for the first leg against Club Bruges in Belgium seven days ago.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Fred and Bruno Fernandes were three of those left out and Solskjaer just about got away with it as United returned with a 1-1 draw and an away goal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is set to take no risks and field his strongest team against Club Bruges, with Manchester United’s Europa League tie poised at 1-1 entering Thursday’s second leg
Anthony Martial earned United a draw in Belgium despite looking inferior for long spells
All three are likely to start in the return at Old Trafford with United strong favourites to make the last-16 of the UEFA Europa League.
Tight fixture scheduling played a significant part in Solskjaer’s decision to ring the changes, with the trip to Bruges coming only three night’s after United’s 2-0 win at Chelsea.
Conscious of the need to give some key players a rest as United juggle commitments in three competitions, Solskjaer made drastic alterations to his starting XI.
The swapping in of Sergio Romero for David de Gea in goal was anticipated, but Wan-Bissaka, who played superbly at Stamford Bridge as he has done often since his summer arrival, was benched in favour of Diogo Dalot.
Dalot has played just 424 minutes of football this season after suffering hip and groin injuries, with his recent Premier League outings limited to just a few minutes off the bench.
Diogo Dalot played in the first leg against Bruges despite very limited game time this season
Victor Lindelof struggled at times in a three-man back line at the Jan Breydel Stadium
Eric Bailly dropped out of a three-man back line to be replaced by Victor Lindelof, whose performances seldom inspire great confidence.
In midfield, Fred, much-maligned at the start of the season but slowly growing into one of United’s most consistent performers, was replaced by the less convincing Andreas Pereira.
And further forward, Fernandes, who has made an exciting and encouraging start to his United career, and Daniel James made way for Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, who supported lone striker Anthony Martial.
The result was that United were second best to the Belgian league leaders for the most part, falling behind to a 15th-minute goal by Emmanuel Dennis after he surged between two defenders to lob a stranded Romero.
United could easily have been further behind as Bruges dominated in filthy weather conditions and the fact they’re level in the tie owed everything to a mistake that allowed Martial to race through and score.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is expected to return at right-back in Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford
Fred will likely return to the United midfield as they hope to reach the last 16 at Old Trafford
It was noticeable how much more stable United looked when Fred was introduced for Pereira and Fernandes came on for Dalot in the last 20 minutes.
After this fortunate escape, it’s unlikely Solskjaer will take any risks at Old Trafford.
Expect Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Fred, Fernandes and James all to return to the starting line-up and a potential switch back to a 4-2-3-1 formation to ensure Bruges don’t get the away goal they crave.
Martial is set to continue having found form in the injury absence of Marcus Rashford by scoring in his last three matches, with January signing Odion Ighalo providing back-up from the bench.
A major boost for United is that danger man Dennis, the best player in the first leg, has picked up an injury and will miss Thursday’s game. Captain Ruud Vormer also misses out.
By contrast, only long-term absentees Paul Pogba and Rashford missed United training on Wednesday, with midfielder Scott McTominay close to a comeback.
Bruno Fernandes opened his scoring account for United with their first against Watford
January arrival Odion Ighalo is awaiting his first United start but has appeared off the bench
United’s crucial games
Premier League unless stated
Thursday Club Bruges (H)
Europa League last-32, second leg
Sunday Everton (A)
March 5 Derby County (A)
FA Cup fifth round
March 8 Manchester City (H)
March 12 Possible Europa League last-16, first leg
March 15 Tottenham (A)
March 19 Possible Europa League last-16, second leg
March 21 Sheffield United (H)
Speaking on his 47th birthday on the eve of the game, Solskjaer gave the impression that United won’t be putting all their eggs into one basket when it comes to getting back into the Champions League next season.
This need was further underlined when the club reported a £70million fall in revenues for the year in their latest financial figures, the result largely of not being in Europe’s elite competition.
United can either make the Champions League by winning the Europa League, as they did in 2017 when then-manager Jose Mourinho prioritised winning the competition to the detriment of their league position.
Or they can finish in the top four of the Premier League – or potentially even fifth if the cogs of Manchester City’s appeal against their Champions League ban start whirring more quickly than expected.
After their 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge last week and Sunday’s 3-0 win over Watford, United are just three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea in the table.
In that tight chase for fourth and their fight on three fronts, United have an absolutely pivotal few weeks ahead that will define the outcome of their season and potentially Solskjaer’s future as manager.
After Bruges, they travel to a revived Everton in the league on Sunday before a trip to Championship club Derby County in the fifth round of the FA Cup next Thursday.
It’s then a home Manchester derby on March 8 before the two legs of a possible Europa League last-16 tie sandwiching a trip to Tottenham on March 15.
The in-form Martial slots home United’s crucial away goal in last week’s first leg in Bruges
This tough run continues with a home game against Sheffield United, also chasing a European spot, on March 21 before the international break offers some respite.
‘We’re a big club and we’ve got good finances but the longer you’re out the more you suffer,’ Solskjaer said.
‘So it’s an ambition to get back into the Champions League. For footballing reasons and financially it will help the club.
‘We’ve got to focus on this competition, then the league on Sunday and then the FA Cup. We need to take one game at a time.
‘You can’t rely on winning the Europa League as there are some good teams in it and we need to get past Bruges.’
With that last bit at the forefront of his mind, this is no time for Solskjaer to take the risk of fielding an under-strength team again.