With the top six facing the bottom half of the table this weekend, Manchester United will aim to somehow get back into the race for the top four if they beat Sunderland on Sunday and if the other results go their way.
Although the season is not far away from coming to an end, it’s always around the month of April where the teams in the relegation zone tend to pull off an incredible upset of sorts against one of the big sides within the Premier League. Since David Moyes’ men are facing a tough period of their own in recent months, they’ll be looking to achieve maximum points in their last eight games.
Here are the three key battles that could shape the outcome of the fixture…
Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Lamine Kone
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning to the starting line-up after completing a three game suspension, the Red Devils will be more than satisfied that the main individual in strike is back as he scored a vital goal from the penalty spot in the dying moments of the game against Everton on Tuesday. Currently on 16 league goals, the Swede was heavily missed during the game versus West Brom last weekend as the side have relied on him week in and out since the start of the campaign.
Ibrahimovic will be in for an aggressive and rough battle versus Lamine Kone, who has been a regular starter in the centre-back position for Sunderland this season. The 28-year-old has completed 24 appearances so far this campaign, having only missed six games due to international duty and a minor injury. Managing 36 interceptions and 18 blocked shots, Kone has arguably become the Black Cats’ key player in the backline. Six foot two inches tall, the Ivory Coast international definitely has the ideal height and physical attribute to go up against Ibrahimovic on Sunday.
Jermain Defoe vs Eric Bailly
Sunderland’s top goal-scorer in the league, Jermain Defoe, will be looking to produce a lot of problems for the Red Devils, who aren’t expected to have Phil Jones and Chris Smalling back from injury anytime soon. Benefitting from his pace and work-rate especially on the counter-attack, the Englishman has already bagged vital goals at home to the likes of Hull City and Liverpool. Although Defoe is currently on a six-game goal drought, he has a good chance of getting back on the score sheet once again when his side play Mourinho’s men.
Defoe will be up against none other than Eric Bailly, who has been fantastic in defence over the past few weeks. During the game against Everton, Romelu Lukaku found himself in many duels against the Manchester United defender, but the striker could not find a way to get past the 22-year-old. Instantly becoming the club’s best defender, Bailly’s current abilities are more than impressive and he is nowhere near his peak, which should make one think about how good he will be when he is at his best.
Paul Pogba vs Didier Ndong
As Paul Pogba made a second half appearance during the fixture versus Everton in the mid-week game, he is expected to start in the game against Sunderland on Sunday. In the first half, it became obvious that the side were missing his creativity and intelligence in the middle of the pitch as the team were very slow to move the ball into the final third. The former Juventus player has not developed much within the role as a defensive midfielder, however, one can hope that Mourinho plays a three man midfield to get the best out of Pogba.
Meanwhile for Sunderland, Didier Ndong will be utilised as a ball winning midfielder in front of the defence and will be looking to keep Pogba as quite as possible throughout the game. Compared to the rest of the squad, Ndong has completed the most tackles (52), third most interceptions (42), and the most blocked passed (20). Despite his side being in the relegation zone, it will not be a surprise to see Ndong being purchased by one of the mid-table teams within the Premier League during the summer transfer window.