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Key Battles: Shaw, Mkhitaryan and Rashford key to beating Boro?

Manchester United will travel to Middlesbrough for the noon kick off on Sunday at the Riverside Stadium in the Premier League with both teams looking for the victory. Jose Mourinho’s side needs to better their sixth-placed Premier League position, of which they will have occupied for 104 days by the time the match comes around. Middlesbrough, fresh from sacking manager Aitor Karanka will be looking to start their turnaround and will be aiming to win their fifth match of the season in a bid, albeit not last-ditch yet, to survive their first season back in the Premier League, which does not look good at this moment in time. Mourinho’s side have been unbeaten in the league since October when they lost 4-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, losing there earlier in the week in the Emirates FA Cup. United played on Thursday night in the UEFA Europa League, beating Rostov 1-0 at Old Trafford to earn a place in the quarter-finals of the competition against Belgian side Anderlecht.

United will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera due to suspension, but injuries will play a part for the Portuguese manager too with Paul Pogba sidelined with a hamstring injury for a fortnight, Daley Blind likely to sit out after suffering a head injury against the Russian side and Bastian Schweinsteiger also remaining on the sidelines through injury. United could well be boosted by the return of both Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney, but nothing is certain on that at this moment in time. Middlesbrough have injuries of their own, which will undoubtedly cause a few problems, but playing a side who have just sacked a manager could pose more problems, especially with Leicester City’s escapades after dispatching Claudio Ranieri last month.

Who will the Key Battles involve at the Riverside on Sunday?

Luke Shaw v Fabio da Silva

Luke Shaw may not have played for Manchester United since the 1-1 draw with Bournemouth at the start of the month, but him being fresh could be good news for Jose Mourinho. For the last three matches now, Jose Mourinho has opted for a five at the back formation, utilising two wing-backs and three central defenders. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind have been used as wing-backs so far, but Shaw coming back in would be a much better option because of his pace, defensive ability and the fact he can also play a part by going forward. If Shaw does feature, former United player Fabio da Silva could well be faced with a problem, providing he remains as the club’s right-back post-Karanka. Fabio has played well for Boro, making an average of six defensive actions per match, also creating nine chances for his teammates, so he could pose a similar problem to Shaw, but against United.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan v Ben Gibson

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been in some good form this season, scoring seven goals so far, the last against Rostov in Russia just over a week ago. At Old Trafford on Thursday night, the Armenian was unlucky in front of goal, having some great chances, being denied by the keeper, which was unfortunate. Since being dropped after a performance in the Manchester derby earlier in the season, Mkhitaryan has gone from strength to strength earning a starting place in Jose Mourinho’s side, now being seen as the guy who can make the earth move in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ben Gibson, should he feature under interim manager Steve Agnew, may have to be at his best to thwart the Armenian who has an eye for a spectacular goal of two. United will need to be at the top of their game for this Middlesbrough side who now need to fight for survival, not just to remain in the Premier League next season, but also to keep their places on the team, and more importantly at the club past the summer. Mkhitaryan has created 26 chances for his teammates in the Premier League this season, also averaging two defensive actions per match, maintaining an 84% pass success rate. Gibson has an 85% pass success rate in the league, also averages nine defensive actions per match, which may well be needed against a resurgent United who are looking to grind out victories in order to better their league position this season.

Marcus Rashford v Victor Valdes

Marcus Rashford rose to the occasion over a year ago now by scoring a brace on his UEFA Europa League debut at home to Midtjylland, also scoring a brace three days later at home against Arsenal on his Premier League debut. This season Rashford has scored seven goals in all competitions, which is not a bad turnover of goals considering he has played as a winger most of the time. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic still suspended for the next two domestic matches, Rashford will be given the nod to lead the line as the most threatening attacker, which could see him pitted against former United goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The Spanish UEFA Champions League winner, who was highly decorated in his time playing for Barcelona and Spain left United as a free agent in the summer after being frozen out by then manager Louis van Gaal, also having a period on loan with Standard Liege before signing for fellow Spaniard Aitor Karanka may be at risk of being humiliated by Rashford, providing he is on point and predatory in front of goal. Of course, Valdes may lose his place to Brad Guzan, as has been the case recently.

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