After the storm, comes even more cloudy skies and thundershowers.
If Manchester United thought they could rest on their laurels and merely enjoy their victory over City, the next four fixtures on their calendar will prove otherwise; another test of their mettle and their legs in an increasingly arduous campaign.
There has been no relent since October, and the start of this crazy and genuinely unique season, though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has at least had the luxury of ‘easier’ or ‘less important’ games intermittently. The cup competitions and the Europa League have been where the Norwegian has practised his policy of rotation. Until now.
Because two European knockout games against AC Milan, a tricky encounter with top-four challengers West Ham and an FA Cup quarter-final showdown with Leicester are about as daunting as a quartet of matches can be.
Manchester four-piece Joy Division once sag ‘when routine bites hard, and ambitions are low’ but United will now have to blend a hectic routine and lofty aspiration if they’re to tear apart their next three opponents. Beating all three looks a tall order, even for the side that ended City’s 21-game winning run.
Injuries have been the result of United’s schedule of late, and there is angst within the walls of Old Trafford about the fitness of Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Donny van de Beek.
All five could realistically miss the first leg against Milan this Thursday, while Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay are only just back from injuries of their own. Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly carry risk of burn-out because of past injuries, and there is too much strain on Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and Aaaron Wan-Bissaka — all irreplaceable in their positions. David de Gea remains away on paternity leave.
The schedule has been a constant gripe of Solskjaer’s all season. Whenever he’s had the chance to speak in press conferences, he has mentioned it as the biggest challenge he faces twice a week when picking a team.
Even back in October, when the majority of United’s squad had just returned from international duty — following the shortest pre-season in memory — Solskjaer’s prediction did not feel too bold. “It’s going to be relentless,” he said.
“It’s easy to be a fan, or to be you and sit and say ‘he should be playing, he should be playing’, but you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. They are tired.”
Manchester United updates
Manchester United secured a memorable 2-0 derby victory over Man City at the Etihad Stadium.
Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw scored the goals to clinch an unexpected, but empathic, victory for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s troops against the league leaders.
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So as much as Solskjaer will want, and need to rotate his squad, probably first and foremost in the opening leg versus AC Milan, he is hamstrung because of those injuries.
One of Bailly or Lindelof will partner Maguire, with the other resting. Alex Telles could step in for Shaw. Nemanja Matic could come in for McTominay and Mason Greenwood is likely to replace Rashford.
That’s about it. A maximum of four changes is probable, the same again between Thursday night and Sunday when West Ham visit Old Trafford. Wan-Bissaka and Fernandes will have to play. The energy of Fred will be tested when he surely starts his ninth, and possibly 10th successive games in all competitions.
There will come a stage when Solskjaer may have to gamble on some players he appears not to trust as much. Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe, for example, at the back; untested teenage duo Shola Shoretire and Amad in more attacking areas.
The ideal scenario is for United to be leading AC Milan by a significant margin from the first leg. Then will come a lesser ‘gamble’ in the San Siro in the second. The other option is to mix and match across the two legs and take a major risk with selection this week.
Either way, there is a storm coming and United will be tested to the limit.