Manchester United head to the KCOM Stadium on Thursday sitting on a healthy 2-0 lead, a lead which gives United significant room for error but certainly leaves the tie very much alive. Jose Mourinho looks to be taking the EFL Cup seriously this season and has a track record for using the often belittled competition as a foundation for bigger and better things when building his Chelsea sides in the past. It seems this may be with good reason too, United are lacking a winning mentality this season, a killer instinct, and a trophy could be just what this squad needs to truly kick on. With that in mind, Jose Mourinho will likely field a strong eleven on Thursday, especially if he is to follow his previous policy of resting in the FA Cup and going strong in this competition – as in the first leg. After a bitterly disappointing draw at the Bet 365 stadium on Saturday, United’s leading lights simply must respond in the way that many, myself included, expected on Saturday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Michael Dawson
Zlatan missed the first leg of this tie a fortnight ago with ‘illness’ and was in turn sorely missed. In a game where Hull sat deep, starving United of any space in behind, the big Swede’s presence may well have changed the course of the game, possibly even putting the tie to bed. However, Thursday will be a different game entirely, with United needing different qualities from Zlatan than would have been required at Old Trafford. Given that Hull finds themselves both at home and chasing a two goal deficit, the onus will be on them to come at United, leaving that space in behind that the likes of Marcus Rashford oh so craved frost time around. United will be looking for their ‘Swedish hero’ to hold the ball and slot in his more pacey team mates, rather than camping in the Hull penalty area, causing chaos. As the central cog of Hull’s back three, it makes sense that Dawson will be the one to come out and follow Zlatan as he drops to collect the ball. It will be absolutely imperative that Dawson remains tight to Zlatan in these exchanges and starves him of the space in which to turn into and link play. With space in behind, failure to do so may well leave United out of sight before Hull can get going.
Paul Pogba vs Tom Huddleston
Thursday’s second leg is an important tie for Paul Pogba in more than one way. Firstly, much like his Swedish compatriot, he simply needs to respond in the way he largely failed to at Stoke over the weekend. Pogba was comfortably the worst player on the pitch against Liverpool the weekend before last and the hallmark of a top player the way in which they respond to performances like this – Pogba needs to show his class. Also, the world’s most expensive player has been accused of going missing in the big games for United this term and despite the opposition on Thursday propping up the Premier League along with Palace and Sunderland in the bottom three, this is still a semi-final, thus making it a big game. However, not only is this game itself big, it is an opportunity to book United’s place at Wembley, a stage where Pogba can prove himself in a Final for Manchester United and win his first silver wear with the club. Standing in the Frenchman’s way on Thursday will be the largely underrated Tom Huddlestone. The former Spurs man is a rare combination of possessing an excellent range of passing along with terrific physicality. The Englishman is largely responsible for the creativity in this Hull side, especially in the absence of Ryan Mason. Both of these players are crucial to their sides and expect the winner of this battle to leave the KCOM pitch on the winning side.
Anthony Martial vs Omar Elabdellaoui
Perhaps the most important player on the pitch on Thursday will be Anthony Martial. The Frenchman saw himself rested at Stoke on Saturday with this game in mind and he was sorely missed. Without his movement and pace in behind, United struggled to penetrate a resolute Stoke defence. With the onus being on Hull in this game to come out at United, there will be space in behind, as before mentioned; and how successful United are in this game may well rest largely on his successful they are in getting their number 11 into that space. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan both mostly looking to thread balls through rather than get behind themselves, Martial could well be United’s greatest threat. It will be important that the Frenchman makes the most of the service that will inevitably come his way with such quality behind him. Looking to shackle Martial will be Hull’s new signing, Omar Elabdellaoui. Right wing back had been a problem area for Hull, with Ahmed El Mohammady going to the Africa Cup of Nations, however they have acted swiftly to bring Elabdellaoui in from the Bundesliga. An unknown quantity in this country, it will Ben interesting to see how he copes with one of the league’s most dangerous and direct forwards on Thursday evening.