Jose Mourinho is treating striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic with kid gloves by keeping the striker out of tonight’s Champions League clash with CSKA Moscow as Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash against Manchester City looms large, writes Rory Dollard.
The Red Devils officially need a point tonight to assure top spot and qualification, but only an extreme contrivance of results and goal difference would see them miss out on the last 16. Given that situation, Mourinho won’t risk the recovering Swedish striker tonight.
Ibrahimovic has made four substitute appearances since his earlier-than-expected
return from knee ligament damage, but was absent from the squad when United
defeated Arsenal on Saturday.
Mourinho confirmed it was a conditioning issue rather than a fresh injury which kept the striker out at the Emirates and he will give Ibrahimovic every chance of being ready to face Pep Guardiola and company.
“Zlatan is not injured. He will be out again for tomorrow, but I believe he will be back to normal work after CSKA,” said Mourinho.
“Zlatan needs some time of very hard work on the muscular area that supports the knee that had the problem. When the time for that hard work comes, the fatigue comes. To work really hard for a certain period of time, he cannot play these days.
“He is on his cycle of work divided between the gym and the pitch.”
Paul Pogba will start against CSKA after United decided not to appeal against his red card at Arsenal. The France midfielder was dismissed at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday and is set to serve a three-game domestic ban.
It is understood United have not contested the dismissal and that the FA will not
impose an additional punishment after Pogba appeared to respond to the red card with a sarcastic clap.
That means the midfielder will take the field in United’s final Champions League group game, where the possibility of equalling a club record of 40 successive home games without defeat is arguably the most important prize at stake.
“He’s happy to play tomorrow. It’s the next match, the match that matters. He plays tomorrow,” said manager Jose Mourinho.
“He’s very happy to play and try to keep his momentum, because since he was back from his injury, he’s been phenomenal.”
The CSKA match will also see Luke Shaw return to the matchday squad.
The England international has been restricted to just 48 minutes this season amid
rumours he is on his way out of Old Trafford, but could make a rare European outing this week.
“I have to think. I am going to make a few, but not too many, changes,” Mourinho added.
“We didn’t qualify yet, we didn’t finish first in the group yet, there are other clubs also involved in qualification and I need to keep a certain balance in the team, but when we speak about Luke Shaw, he’s working to have an opportunity and sooner or later that opportunity will arrive because he deserves that opportunity.
“He is selected for tomorrow for sure... to start or be on the bench, I cannot answer.”
There will definitely be a change in goal, with David de Gea rested in favour of Sergio Romero, while Joel Pereira is on the bench.
De Gea is turning in another superb season for United, but Mourinho offered a playful response when asked if he had seen a better goalkeeper this year.
“Yes. Romero,” he said.
“Because he plays tomorrow. My goalkeeper is always the best goalkeeper in the world. Now David is third best. Romero is number one and Joel number two.”
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba shares a joke during training at Carrington yesterday. He will start in tonight’s Champions League clash with CSKA Moscow.
CSKA coach Viktor Goncharenko believes his side’s bad luck will be Manchester City’s gain as he prepares to face Pogba.
“Of course, Pogba is a player who is able to do anything on the pitch. It will make things easier for Manchester City and not for us,” said Goncharenko.
“Our young players will have something to learn from him playing in the game, but at the same time we cannot allow him to play at his best and show everything he is
Goncharenko arrived in England a matter of hours after his predecessor at CSKA, Leonid Slutsky, left Championship strugglers Hull by mutual consent.
That is not how the former Russia boss envisaged his move to England playing out, but Goncharenko was unsurprised, if not unsympathetic.
“Any manager should be ready for a sacking at any time,” he said.
“Sometimes it is not even based on results. Of course we wished Leonid to succeed, but this is life, it is football.”
CSKA’s slim chance of reaching the next phase requires them to beat United as a first point of order, though Basel’s result at Benfica and goal difference also have a part to play.
Russia midfielder Alan Dzagoev was unaware United are on the cusp of equalling a club record of 40 successive home games unbeaten, but is focused on the task at hand.
“Of course, Old Trafford is a special stadium, always a big attendance and I have a special feeling playing there,” he said.
“To be honest I didn’t know about this record and I hope we will be the first to end it.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved