With Manchester United facing two more games before the international break, and then hosting table-topping rivals Liverpool on the other side of it, there are very few reasons to be cheerful for the side currently sitting tenth in the Premier League. The weekend offers some potential respite with a visit to a Newcastle side that looks not so much “beatable” as “less of a challenge than eleven traffic cones painted black and white”, but the Red Devils have been fairly unconvincing themselves of late. The weekend’s visit to Tyneside will take on a measure of desperation if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side suffer a defeat this evening at AZ Alkmaar.
The “Cheeseheads” currently sit in third spot in the Eredivisie and have conceded just three times in their first eight games – the best defensive record in Holland, bar none. It’s that imposing backline that United must try to find a way through – and they’re likely to have to do it with a skeleton side, given the current rash of injuries and the relatively packed schedule they’re currently working through. Only the most optimistic fans will travel in anything other than trepidation here; on the other hand, a win tonight would be an excellent result, and something to foster hope for the tricky games to come.
Defences likely to hold sway
If there has been any good news for United fans this season, it has been that the investment in international-quality upgrades at right-back and centre-back have made them look more confident defensively than the mess they were last campaign. That’s a qualified positive, though, given that Harry Maguire is unlikely to be risked tonight and Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been ruled out with a fitness concern. Maguire’s spot is likely to fall to Axel Tuanzebe, while Diogo Dalot should deputise for the former Crystal Palace man.
Those changes are something that can be absorbed; United aren’t facing a top attacking side this evening. However, at the other end of the pitch, it’s hard to see a Red Devils attack that strained to a 1-0 win over Astana suddenly hitting its straps tonight. Mason Greenwood may be one of the best natural finishers Old Trafford has seen in a few years, but he may find openings hard to come by given the hosts’ stingy defence. This game could well be a defensive battle, and 888 have odds of 5/2 on there being fewer than 1.5 goals. If last night’s Liverpool-Salzburg clash seemed certain to bring confident attacking on both sides, this is a match that promises the opposite.
Dodgy pitch raises Solskjaer’s ire
The already-diminished Manchester United squad will be at least one player thinner thanks to the pitch at the Kyocera Stadium, where tonight’s match is being played. Usually, Alkmaar play at the AFAS Stadium in their home city – but high winds caused a roof collapse at the arena back in August, and it won’t be in any condition to host football matches ahead of remedial work being completed in December. So tonight, United fans will be heading to the Hague instead, where AZ currently share the ground with ADO Den Haag, and where Solskjaer has pronounced the pitch to be some way short of the standard he would expect.
The condition of the Kyocera’s plastic pitch, according to OGS, is some way short of what he is used to in his native Norway, and it has led to United ruling out Paul Pogba. The French national captain is only recently returned from an ankle injury, and the playing conditions would risk aggravating existing issues. It’s another reason why this game may not flow the way either set of fans would be hoping, and William Hill’s 10/11 odds for “No” on Both Teams To Score make a whole lot of sense in the circumstances.
An unrewarding trip for the men in red
Call it a quirk of national bias, but every UK bookie seems to have Manchester United as favourites for this game, despite a heavy weight of evidence suggesting that they have an almighty struggle ahead of them. Let’s make no mistake here – a draw would, on balance, be an excellent result for the Red Devils tonight, keeping them top of the group and unbeaten in the competition after what is likely to be the hardest game they face in this round of the Europa League. Add to that the fact that there will be no Pogba, no Maguire, no Anthony Martial and probably no Marcus Rashford, and three points tonight would be beyond all reasonable expectations.
Looking at AZ’s defensive strength, United’s weak attack, the Thursdayish nature of the game and the ropey pitch – which the home side will be somewhat used to – we’d confidently predict a win for the home side. Betfair have them priced at 21/10 to get the three points here, compared to 13/10 on United. We would attribute that lock, stock and barrel to the fact that the bookie, and all UK bookmakers, have taken (much) more money on the English side from fans who feel a loyalty to their team. Perhaps the visiting side will manage to repay that faith, but on a footballing basis, AZ are clearly the value bet.
Bets of the Day
AZ to win (Betfair, 21/10); Both Teams To Score – NO (William Hill, 10/11); Fewer than 1.5 goals (888, 5/2)