Key Battles: Flair players to prove key for Manchester United

Manchester United welcome Middlesbrough to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve looking to extend a four match winning streak, which has seen the Reds move within four points of the top four. Having swept Sunderland aside on boxing day, United will look to establish a more convincing style of play. In contrast to United’s recent resurgence, Middlesbrough head to Old Trafford on the back of three points from the last available twelve. With Zlatan in fine form and Henrikh Mkhitaryan marking his return to the team in spectacular fashion, this game will likely rest on the performance of United’s flair players.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Ben Gibson

Zlatan looks to establish himself as 2016’s top goal scorer on the planet. Two goals against Middlesbrough would be enough to take Zlatan to this particular accolade. Ben Gibson, a mainstay in the Middlesbrough team this season, will be the man tasked with shackling United’s Swedish superstar. With Gibson winning 82% of his attempted tackles, it seems clear that his strengths lie with the ball on the ground. United may look to exploit Gibson in an aerial capacity, given Zlatan’s huge 6ft 5 inch frame and superb hold up play. With Middlesbrough likely to sit relatively deep at Old Trafford, United may be best hitting Ibrahimovic early, allowing United’s other creative talents to be brought into the game early, bypassing what will likely be a compact and resolute midfield.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs Fabio da Silva

On New Year’s Eve Henrikh Mkhitaryan will almost certainly return to the United line up following his spectacular early goal of the season front-runner against Sunderland. Trying to contain United’s midfield Armenian will be ex-United man Fabio da Silva. Since leaving Old Trafford, Fabio has dropped down to the Championship to build his way back up to becoming a solid Premier League full back. The Brazilian no doubt possesses the energy and dynamism to match Mkhitaryan, however this is unlikely to be enough to contain the Armenia captain. The former Dortmund man often looks to drift inside and back out again, linking play with clever one twos. Should Mkhitaryan ‘turn up’ for United, Fabio’s return should be an unpleasant one.

Marcos Rojo vs Alvaro Negredo

With five Premier League goals this term, Negredo represents Middlesborough’s greatest goal threat. In a struggling team, the Spaniard has done well to find the net on so many occasions, making the most of his limited service. It will be Rojo’s job to ensure this service is particularly scarce on New Year’s Eve. Marcos Rojo has been in fine form for Jose Mourinho since Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling vacated the central defensive positions through injury. With a tenacious attitude to say the least, Rojo will offer an opposition that Negredo has likely not faced the likes of this term. With Negredo preferring to play with his back to goal, rather than challenging his centre back in a foot race, this match up will represent a different challenge for Rojo too.

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