The domestic cup action returns this weekend, with 32 clubs set to battle it out in the fourth round of this season’s FA Cup competition. The FA Cup is the oldest cup competition in football history, and one of the most prestigious competitions in the world. Winning it would deem a successful season for most clubs, and there is a lot at stake for every club this weekend. Our featured fixture sees 12-time cup winners Manchester United host Championship club Middlesbrough at Old Trafford on Friday night.
Man United were in fine form prior to the international break, beating Brentford and then securing a dramatic late winner against West Ham United at home, to go fourth in the league table. After a very rocky start to the 21/22 season, Manchester United seem to have stabilized on the pitch, although it is their off-the-pitch exploits that have been grabbing the headlines lately. Fans have been left shell-shocked with recent news and they will be hoping that United can provide them with some relief with a good performance on the pitch on Friday night. The Red Devils were largely inactive in the January transfer window in terms of incoming players, but there was plenty of action in the outgoing department, with big names like Anthony Martial and Donny van de Beek going on loan for the remainder of the season to Sevilla and Everton respectively. Other outgoings included youngsters Amad Diallo, Teden Mengi, Axel Tuanzebe and Ethan Laird. The FA Cup provides the only realistic chance for United to grab some silverware and end their 5-year trophy drought. Ralf Rangnick has taken some time to understand the squad and everyone’s best positions, but it seems now that United have finally achieved some solidity and can now build on for the second half of the season.
Middlesbrough had a similarly tough time at the start of the season, falling to as low as 17th position in the Championship league table under Neil Warnock, who was eventually replaced by former Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder. Under Wilder, Boro have gone on a brilliant run of eight wins in twelve games to take them to seventh place and the final playoff spot in the league. Wilder has a proven record with Sheffield United, taking them to the Premier League from League One, and he has shown why he could be the right man to take Boro back to the top-flight of English football for the first time since the 16/17 season. Middlesbrough had to get past Mansfield Town in the third round of the FA Cup, and it proved to be a tough game, with a last-minute own goal proving to be the winning goal in a game that ended 3-2 to Boro. They were last in action against Coventry City in the league, winning 1-0 thanks to a second-half goal from Andraz Sporar. They have a real hope of qualifying for the playoffs and challenging for the final promotion spot if they can keep this run going.
Friday’s contest will be the first time that the 20-time English champions have faced Middlesbrough since a Premier League contest in March 2017, with the Red Devils running out 3-1 winners at the Riverside Stadium courtesy of goals from Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Antonio Valencia. Boro’s trip to Old Trafford will also be their first since New Year’s Eve 2016, when a late comeback from United saw them get the three points after Middlesbrough had taken the lead in the second half.
Manchester United saw the departure of Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek and Amad Diallo in the January transfer window. Mason Greenwood has been suspended by the club due to his horrific off-field exploits and faces arrest. As a result, United now seem to be a bit light in the attacking department, with only Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga available as wingers.
However, there is some good news for Man United fans, with midfielder Paul Pogba back in training with the team. There is hope that he will be fit enough to at least feature from the bench on Friday night, and it remains to see if he is available. The 12-time FA Cup winners did not allow forward Jesse Lingard to leave the club despite his repeated requests, and he could get more game time now following the January departures. Youngster Hannibal Mjebri is set to be fully integrated into the senior squad now, and he could be in contention for some minutes on Friday night. South American stars Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles and Fred will all be unavailable with international duties and will miss out on Friday night’s game.
Middlesbrough will be without January signing Riley McGree, who tested positive for COVID-19 and will have to isolate. Another January signing Folarin Balogun could be in line for a start at Old Trafford, while striker Sammy Ameobi remains on the sidelines. Defenders Darnell Fisher and Marc Bola have also been ruled out alongside midfielder James Lea Siliki, who is away on international duty at AFCON with Cameroon. Fortunately for Chris Wilder, there are no more injuries and he will be expected to name a strong side to take on the Red Devils.
CAN WILDER SHOCK MAN UNITED ONE MORE TIME?
Chris Wilder has transformed Middlesbrough since his appointment. When Neil Warnock departed, the hopes of promotion were all but doused. However, since his arrival, Wilder led Boro to a fantastic eight-game unbeaten run and brought them up the table once again, and within touching distance of 4th place.
Wilder started by changing the way Boro plays, bringing in his preferred 3-5-2 formation that was so crucial in Sheffield United’s run to the Premier League, and their two-year stay there. The changed formation has now brought out the best of some Middlesbrough players, with Paddy McNair one of the beneficiaries. His solid performance against Coventry City in the three-man defence was evidence of how far he has come, as he prepares to face his former club on Friday night.
While the defence was never a big problem for Middlesbrough, they look more comfortable in the three-man defence now than they did before. Dutchman Anfernee Dijksteel, and local Dael Fry have been partnered with McNair and their defence has grown stronger than ever. This has helped them become one of the best defences in the league now, and Wilder will be banking on the strong defence once again on Friday night, with the attack faltering so far this season. Their attack has been as bad as their defence has been good. It is telling that their top scorer Andraz Sporar has just seven goals in 23 appearances.
However, for all the faults in his team, Wilder has proved before that he can go toe-to-toe with the big teams. He surprised Man United at Old Trafford with Sheffield United last time, winning 2-1 in January 2021. Middlesbrough go into this fixture firmly as the underdogs, but United have shown a lack of killer touch this season, and smaller teams have had favorable results against the Red Devils.
CAN UNITED CONTINUE THEIR FINE RUN WITH AN EASY WIN?
Since Ralf Rangnick’s appointment, United have played 10 games in all competitions, winning 6, drawing three and losing just one. They are signs of improvement in every area of the pitch, and United are slowly getting back to playing the way a team of superstars should. The defence has looked far more stable, and summer signing Raphael Varane has been able to form partnerships with both Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof at the back.
The midfield is the biggest issue for United, but they have coped well in recent games, with Fred, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes starting almost all games under Rangnick. A natural defensive midfielder was the urgent requirement at Old Trafford in the summer, and the situation has not changed, with United failing to sign a midfielder in the January transfer window despite there being a huge need for one. However, United have a much better squad on paper and will be expected to get past their opponents with ease on Friday night. The Red Devils have lost only one game at home under Rangnick this season and will hope to continue that fine record.
Ralf Rangnick knows, as do all United fans, that the FA Cup is the most realistic piece of silverware they can win this season, with a very tough tie against Atletico Madrid still to come in the Champions League Round of 16. The squad are still finding their feet, and this could be their only chance to end their 5-year trophyless run. Middlesbrough will prove to be tricky opponents, but they will be easier to play against than their third-round opponents Aston Villa. This tie marks the beginning of the second half of the season, and United can ill-afford to be complacent. They have beaten Boro with ease in the past, and have a spectacular record at Old Trafford against them, only losing 6 of their 32 matches played there, scoring 55 goals in the process. Winning this tie will prove to be a huge step forward for the Red Devils, in terms of confidence and consistency, and also in their quest for the FA Cup win come the end of the season.
Man United predicted XI: Dean Henderson; Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic, Bruno Fernandes; Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford.
Middlesbrough predicted XI: Joe Lumley; Paddy McNair, Sol Bamba, Dael Fry; Isaiah Jones, Jonny Howson, Matt Crooks, Marcus Tavernier, Neil Taylor; Andraz Sporar, Folarin Balogun.