Football: Troubled Rovers set to face a firing squad

Manchester United's Juan Mata shooting wide under pressure from Saint-Etienne's Stephane Ruffier.
Manchester United's Juan Mata shooting wide under pressure from Saint-Etienne's Stephane Ruffier.PHOTO: REUTERS

Fringe Red Devils could get their chance against Blackburn and keep United in four competitions

Manchester United should savour the sense of similarity. They have drawn Championship opposition for the third consecutive round of the FA Cup.

Having beaten both Reading and Wigan 4-0, they could complete a hat-trick.

The holders certainly should advance to the last eight, extend their participation in four competitions and add to the congestion in an already packed fixture list.

This is the 41st game of a campaign that could include 68 matches. That heavy workload should represent good news for United's squad players.

Jose Mourinho rotates fewer players than many elite managers but made nine changes against Wigan.

This may be another opportunity for fringe figures like Sergio Romero, Luke Shaw, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and the decorated deputy, Bastian Schweinsteiger.

  • Blackburn v Man United: Key battles

    DANNY GRAHAM V CHRIS SMALLING

    Graham rarely convinced in the Premier League but, while he is more prolific in the Championship, he has gone five games without a goal and could be separated from Sam Gallagher, his usual partner. The target man should have a physical battle with Smalling who, with former Rovers defender Phil Jones' latest injury setbacks, is back in the team.

    JASON LOWE V BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER

    Captain Lowe is the lone survivor of Rovers' last win over United, a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford on Alex Ferguson's 70th birthday in 2011. Schweinsteiger's sole start of the season came against Wigan in the last round and he capped an influential display with his first United goal in 15 months with an ungainly overhead kick.

    WES BROWN V MARCUS RASHFORD

    Brown actually won more trophies for United than Wayne Rooney. He has started only two games for Rovers but injuries and suspensions could give him a sentimental recall. The 37-year-old is 18 years older than Rashford, whose only goals since September came against Reading. If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is rested, he could get a rare chance as a striker.

    Richard Jolly

They could have the chance to secure themselves another game in the sixth round, or to feature more frequently in the Premier and Europa Leagues.

Certainly, with the second leg against Saint-Etienne four days before the Feb 27 League Cup final, Mourinho would probably prefer to spare some of his first-choice players Wednesday's trip to France.

The Portuguese may be scarred by one of the greatest FA Cup upsets in recent years, when his Chelsea team lost 2-4 to Bradford in 2015, but he tends to have an immunity to upsets.

So do United, who have only gone out once to lower-league opponents in 33 years of FA Cup football.

And Blackburn's plight is such that it would be a huge shock if they won. Second from bottom in the Championship, they are on course to drop out of the top two divisions for the first time since promotion in 1980.

Their 11-year stay in the Premier League feels like a different era, let alone their title in 1995.

Manager Owen Coyle recorded a famous win over United, but in his Burnley days, when he was being compared to Bill Shankly. Few describe the unpopular Scot in such glowing terms now.

His sides tend to be attack-minded, but their joint-top scorer, Sam Gallagher, was injured in Tuesday's defeat by Sheffield Wednesday.

Mourinho's squad is deeper but Rovers' is depleted. They have kept only four league clean sheets this season and their fourth-round FA Cup win over Blackpool was marked by protests against owners Venky's.

 

The air of discontent could be apparent again: If United are cruising to victory, fans may take advantage of a global audience to give their grievances more publicity.

In contrast, United, with only one defeat in 23 games, are showing more harmony, on and off the pitch.

Stalwarts such as Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney may cherish memories of their 2011 visit to Ewood Park, when the current captain's penalty clinched their record-breaking 19th league title.

This lacks the same significance, but could be a path to more silverware.

BLACKBURN V MANCHESTER UNITED

Singtel TV Ch109, tomorrow, 11.55pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Troubled Rovers set to face a firing squad'. Print Edition | Subscribe