Manchester United should not give into temptation to rest players against Leicester City on Sunday - instead Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must pick his strongest available side.
United did well to negotiate their second-leg tie against AC Milan on Thursday evening, when an injured Marcus Rashford was withdrawn for Paul Pogba, only for Pogba to score the only goal of the game.
That win has earned them a quarter-final draw against Granada, one of the easiest opponents they could have been matched against. It allows them the chance to focus on managing their resources as best they can.
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However, asked about this current United vintage compared to the one he played with, Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic made the most important point, saying: “I think it’s better. I think it looks better, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win nothing.”
Solskjaer has been at United for a few seasons now, and while he has moved them up the table consistently, there is something essentially unconvincing about their progress. The defence is still poor, Ed Woodward is yet to impress, and their two highest paid players - Pogba and David de Gea - either need to be sold this summer or want to be. There are too many careless defeats to poor sides, and too many late goals to give up important points along the way. Manchester City are clearly a step up from anybody else in the league, but at their full potential this United side should be making them work much harder for another inevitable league title.
While United are not going to win the league, a place in the top four is far from certain either. They are nine points clear of fifth-placed West Ham, which will be six should David Moyes’ side win their game in hand. Two slip-us, entirely within Solskjaer’s abilities, could see Champions League football next season imperilled. Should that happen then the financial impact would immediately rule out any chance of signing Erling Haaland or Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, and could hurry up the exits of Pogba without the chance to use any transfer fee to find his replacement.
That means United cannot afford to rest their weariest players, however difficult that might be. Edinson Cavani is 34 and keeps suddenly withdrawing from squads with injury, and Juan Mata’s body was rarely the strongest but he is now injured while needed most. Rashford felt a twinge against Milan and Anthony Martial is struggling for fitness too. Given the dreadful performance of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire so far this season, United cannot stand to go without their matchwinners in many matches, if any at all.
It might be tempting for the walking wounded to give Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final with Leicester City a wide berth. Give Rashford, Martial and Cavani the weekend off, hope they are excused from the toughest rigours of the international break, and hope to squeeze by. Brendan Rodgers might be of a similar mind, to focus on Champions League football rather than an increasingly devalued trinket. That could be a mistake.
As Ibrahimovic pointed out, winning games for a club like United is pointless if it does not end with winning trophies. The Premier League trophy is out of reach while United search for their ruthless side, but the FA Cup is their best hope of learning how to win. More than one coach has pointed out that demonstrating to a side that they can win something is part of the foundation to teaching them how to go onto greatness. Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have all used the League Cup along the way to building a championship-winning side, and the FA Cup could do the same job for Solskjaer’s United. With suggestions that Bruno Fernandes is reluctant to sign a new deal until the club prove that they can compete, a cup is not a complete answer but it is at least a hint.
For reasons bigger than Sunday's game, Solskjaer will have to take a risk, even if it is uncomfortable and occasionally damaging. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic the national managers should be the ones giving their players time off when needed, with club football both more important to the economy and to most fans. They should be the ones making compromises.
There are around 15-20 games left this season, and Solskjaer will probably have to gamble with his players in each of them if he is to maintain his proven track record of somehow improving the club every year.
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