With the key fixture of the weekend being Manchester City vs Liverpool, Manchester United have the chance to make grounds on both teams if the result goes their way and if they also beat Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium.
Despite it being easier said than done, Middlesbrough have recently sacked Aitor Karanka and Steve Agnew will now be taking over as the caretaker manager. The fact that Karanka is best friends with boss Jose Mourinho, could mean that he’ll expect his close pal to get some revenge come Sunday on the players that stabbed the former manager in the back.
Here are the three key battles that could shape the outcome of the fixture…
Marcus Rashford vs Ben Gibson
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic still serving his ban, Marcus Rashford is expected to lead the line on his own. The youngster has been in and out of the line-up since the start of the new era at Old Trafford, but he has a big chance to prove to Mourinho that he can also come up with the goods just like his team-mates. Thriving from his pace and dribbling ability, he will be looking to score his first league goal since January.
Rashford will be in for an interesting and feisty battle versus Ben Gibson, who has been Middlesbrough’s best centre-back so far this season. Missing zero games since the start of the campaign, the 24-year-old has completed more clearances (171) and blocked shots (24) than any other player within the Middlesbrough squad. Standing at six foot once inches tall, he certainly has the height and physical advantage compared to Rashford.
Alvaro Negredo vs Marcos Rojo
Middlesbrough’s current top goal-scorer in the league, Alvaro Negredo, will be hoping that Steve Agnew sets the team in an attacking approach so he can benefit from his team-mates being close to him in the final third. Under Karanka, the Spaniard spent most of the fixture helping his side out defensively rather than being ready to pounce on the counter-attack. The blame shouldn’t be placed on him, however, he will be expected to benefit from this managerial change starting from Sunday.
Negredo will be up against none other than Marcos Rojo, who has been one of the few United players that have been fantastic since the arrival of Mourinho. Forming an impressive partnership with Phil Jones at the heart of the defence, the 26-year-old has been a key factor to why Chris Smalling has not been in the starting XI in recent weeks. Scoring his first Premier League against Bournemouth at the start of the month, he is also starting to become a threat from set-pieces.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan vs Adam Clayton
Considering the fact that Ibrahimovic is banned and the likes of Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney are still injured, Henrikh Mkhitaryan will need to perform at the highest level and also show that he can be individually independent on for the vital goals. Recognised as a key player away from home, his intelligence and end product in the final third will be much needed by the Red Devils.
Meanwhile, for Middlesbrough, Adam Clayton will be starting in the defensive midfield role as he will be aiming to keep the Armenian as quiet as possible. The 28-year-old has been making the side tick, with his abilities on both sides of the pitch and will be in for a thrilling duel against Mkhitaryan. On top of that, Clayton will be looking to help his side break quickly on the counter-attack as it will be the team’s best method of creating the opportunity of scoring.