LONDON (AFP) – Manchester United will attempt to stave off an assault on their third-place position in the Premier League table when they welcome closest pursuers Southampton to Old Trafford on Sunday.
United have gone 10 games without defeat since losing 1-0 at joint-leaders Manchester City on November 2, but they have taken only six points from a possible 12 after drawing three of their last four matches.
It has prevented Louis van Gaal’s side from fully exploiting recent slip-ups by co-leaders Chelsea, who they trail by nine points, and has allowed Southampton to close to within one point.
After a run of four straight defeats in late November and early December, including a 2-1 loss in the reverse fixture, Ronald Koeman’s side have won three and drawn one of their last four games.
United were fortunate to claim victory at St Mary’s last month, with Robin van Persie’s brace representing two of the three shots on goal they managed to muster in the 90 minutes.
But United are in much finer fettle than they were a month ago.
Their injury glut has cleared to the extent that Ashley Young (hamstring) is the only player currently unavailable, while the squad was bolstered on Thursday with the eye-catching acquisition of former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
It leaves Van Gaal with an enviable selection dilemma on his hands.
Over the festive period, the Dutchman devised a system that accommodated Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Van Persie and Radamel Falcao, and he must now find a way of fitting Angel di Maria into his team as well.
The Argentine winger made a goal-scoring return from a pelvic injury in United’s 2-0 win at third-tier Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round last weekend and could start against Southampton.
“Angel di Maria has played only 20 minutes and that’s because of the match rhythm that I gave,” said Van Gaal.
“I have said I have only one injured player (Young), but I don’t have 100 percent match-fit players. That’s a different thing.
“But of course Di Maria is for example further than Daley Blind or (Marcos) Rojo.
“I have to select the best team and also I have to watch the qualities of Southampton, how I can reduce that quality by my line-up, but also by our game-plan.”