Manchester United have been bolstered by the news that Paul Pogba is expected to recover from hamstring injury in time to participate in their crucial April 1 Premier League fixture against West Bromwich Albion.
The France international was forced out of Thursday’s night Europa League Round of 16 victory over FC Rostov three minutes into the second half. Initial expectations were that Pogba would be sidelined for at least three weeks, jeopardising United’s attempt to secure a top-four Premier League finish.
Although medical examination today confirmed that Pogba’s muscle was stressed and would prevent him from playing Sunday’s League meeting with Middlesbrough, no rupture was detected. Pogba will miss France’s World Cup qualifier in Luxembourg next week and the March 28 friendly against Spain, but should be ready to face West Brom in a fortnight’s time.
United’s technical staff believe the club’s recent match and travel schedule contributed to the 24-year-old’s injury. Pogba and his fellow players were forced to make an unplanned and roadworks-extended return to Manchester by bus when the jet originally chartered to fly them back from Monday night’s FA Cup defeat at Chelsea failed to arrive at Heathrow Airport.
United’s coach had already brought the team to Heathrow when staff informed Jose Mourinho that the aeroplane was overseas and not expected to be available until 2.30am. Rather than spend three hours waiting at the airport, a decision was taken to drive north, resulting in the team failing to arrive in Manchester until 4am.
Mourinho is understood to have been infuriated that club staff had chartered a jet without a guaranteed departure time. An important aspect of the United manager’s method is the careful scheduling of recovery time and training sessions to minimise muscle injuries. Disruption to normal sleep patterns, such as those enforced by travelling through the night, stress a footballer’s body and increase the risk of breaking down during a match – as Pogba did against Rostov.
“Fatigue has a price,” said Mourinho following Thursday’s 1-0 win. “I will remember forever, when I spoke with the UEFA delegate in Rostov, he told me that if any of our players gets an injury then the insurance pays so the pitch is not a problem.
“Probably the people that decide the [FA Cup] match is for us on the Monday, and then [Middlesbrough] Sunday at 12 o’clock, they are probably people who think the same: ‘If they are injured, they are insured and it is no problem.’”
United sit sixth in the Premier League, six points behind Liverpool in the final Champions League qualifying slot, with two games in hand. The Europa League offers an alternative route into UEFA’s premier club competition and Mourinho must martial a squad containing several individuals he rarely trusts with first-team duty to compete on two fronts.
His team have played 20 matches since Boxing Day and face a minimum of 14 further fixtures this season. Should they reach the Europa League Final, United will have played 37 matches in a 150-day period. Amongst their direct rivals for a top-four finish, Manchester City face a minimum of 29 matches before their season ends, Arsenal and Tottenham 28, with Chelsea and Liverpool on 26.
Unhappy that the Premier League has scheduled Sunday’s fixture for midday, Mourinho says United will “probably lose the game on Sunday but we will try our best”.
“In Italy when clubs go to the knock-out stages and play on the Tuesday or Wednesday, the week before they play on the Friday. In Portugal, the week after they play on the Monday,” added Mourinho, who criticised UK television broadcasters’ ability to set kick-off times with limited regard to a club’s European commitments.
“It’s the simple criteria of ‘we give you so much money’. That is true and we appreciate it. They are totally right and we have to thank them so much for what they are building. But you can just have a little touch. Nobody can explain why we are playing at 12 o’clock.”