Manchester United take on Newcastle on Saturday, following a poorly timed international break. Having lost 1-0 Chelsea, United could have done with having the opportunity to bounce back sooner, rather than time off to stew on their performance and the result against Antonio Conte’s men.
However, it’s not been all doom and gloom. The time away from club football has seen Romelu Lukaku back in scoring form, having gone six starts without a goal for United.
His 31 goals make him Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer, even if FIFA contest the record, which is a huge achievement for the striker. Wayne Rooney was 27 before he matched such a tally for England, while Cristiano Ronaldo was 26, and Lionel Messi 25. Lukaku is only 24 and deserves recognition for boasting so many goals for his country.
More importantly, having looked bereft of confidence, and not even getting a touch of the ball in the opposition box at Stamford Bridge, scoring three times and assisting another will be great for him.
The break hasn’t only provided United with hopefully a rejuvenated Lukaku though, but it has also given three injured players the time to complete the final stage of their rehabilitation.
On Friday, Jose Mourinho confirmed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Marcos Rojo would all be involved in the matchday squad for Newcastle.
The return of Zlatan should keep Lukaku on his toes and give him even greater motivation to get a goal. Pogba’s absence has hurt United in midfield and Rojo provides Mourinho with another defensive option, which is particularly helpful in light of Victor Lindelof’s struggles.
Ibrahimovic and Rojo both suffered from a serious cruciate ligament injury on the same evening, when United booked their place in the Europa League semi-final back in April. There were worries over whether Zlatan’s career was over, with it seemingly certain that both wouldn’t play any more football during 2017. Their return in mid-November, ahead of the busy Christmas period, is incredible news for United.
“He made a full recovery,” Mourinho said of Ibrahimovic. “Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career. Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”
While his return is important, it doesn’t come close to the relief that United fans feel at knowing Pogba is available for selection again.
The Frenchman played in just five games in all competitions for United this season. They won four and drew one, scoring 15 and conceding two.
Considering all the fuss that was made when United paid £89 million for him, very little attention has been given the fact Mourinho has gone through most of the season without him.
Imagine Manchester City with Kevin De Bruyne for months of the season, or Chelsea without Eden Hazard, or Tottenham Hotspur without Harry Kane, yet the media has hardly batted an eyelid at Pogba’s absence.
“You can clearly see Manchester United this season before Paul’s injury and after Paul’s injury. It’s as simple as that,” Mourinho said.
United fans will be hoping that his presence spells the return to the dazzling form of the opening weeks of the season, although it may take the midfielder some time to settle again, given that he hasn’t played since the beginning of September.
The gap between United and City has grown over recent weeks, with Mourinho’s team losing two of their last three league games. They have to start winning, particularly with fixtures against Arsenal and City on the horizon. With the likes of Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Rojo back in the squad, their chances of doing that improve.
With easier games, on paper at least, against Newcastle, Basel, Brighton and Watford, United will be expected to pick up four wins and the availability of these players could be key to that.