Manchester United, finally done with Europa League football for 2016, now has a tough Premier League Christmas schedule to deal with, commencing with a midweek tie against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. United’s matches with Crystal Palace have been typically tight affairs, but United has gotten the better of them in recent matches, most notably a 2-1 win at Wembley. Obviously, United has improved since, as shown by the win over Tottenham, but Crystal Palace can be a banana peel, especially during the rough Christmas period, and pressure is mounting on United to string a few wins together. Now is the time for United to shine, and key players could prove to be particularly important.
Christian Benteke, Striker, Crystal Palace
As tough a striker to face as any in the bottom ten in the Premier League, Benteke will be important to watch, not only because he can find the back of the net, but also because he represents another significant test for United’s centre-back duo of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones. A failed Liverpool transfer, Benteke is now plying his trade where he belongs, helping carry Palace into mid-table. Scoring eight goals in just thirteen Premier League games gives him a tally that is comparable to United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Wilfried Zaha, Winger, Crystal Palace
Having seen the incredible form of Zaha in the Championship with Crystal Palace, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to make the winger one of his last purchases as Manchester United manager, with the hope he wold eventually become a world class player. However, he did not quite gel with Manchester United’s next manager, David Moyes, and now he ends up back with Crystal Palace. That being said, it seems for the best, because Zaha is in the best string of form in his Premier League career.
His impressive tally of three goals and six assists in 13 appearances is matches by the rest of his attacking stastistics- Zaha averages 1.5 key passes per game, but more notably 4.4 dribbles per game, which is a very reputable number. Zaha will be eager to score against his former club, with the English national team on alert and in need of a pacey, incisive winger.
Marcos Rojo, Centre-Back, Manchester United
This week, Manchester United comes up against two big strikers who represent good challenges for the centre-backs at the club. The aforementioned Benteke and Salomon Rondon, who should start up top for West Brom on the weekend, will be a good challenge for Marcos Rojo, who is in the form of his Manchester United career, aggressively producing very combative displays. Rojo is slowly emerging as Eric Bailly’s most suitable partner, with the need for Daley Blind at left-back and Phil Jones looking too similar to Bailly. Dealing with Christian Benteke will be a good sign for Rojo, who needs to be playing his best football to develop into a United-calibre defender.
Juan Mata, Attacking Midfielder, Manchester United
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was excellent during his reintroduction to the squad, but he picked up an injury, once again proving the need to rotate the squad. Even if he hadn’t, though, I would’ve opted to see him given a rest in favour of Juan Mata, who has been one of the side’s best players this season and can’t find his way into the team. Completing 89.2% of his passes and 1.8 key passes every game, Mata is a clear outlet in possession, moving the ball along and keeping United ticking. Also scoring five goals in seventeen games, Mata has a lot to offer as a squad player at United, and he has the chance to prove that in Mkhitaryan’s absence.