Manchester United will be without both Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial when they try to keep pace at the top of the Premier League away at Watford on Saturday. Indeed, Louis van Gaal has been left with a lengthy list of absentees following the two-week international break. France forward Martial has joined England midfielder Michael Carrick in picking up injuries playing for their countries. Meanwhile, Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia remain on the sidelines, and Rooney is unwell.
“Wayne Rooney was ill after the international break,” Van Gaal said in his pre-match press conference. “I only saw him once, the day after he played, then he was at home yesterday, so I think he can't play.”
Both Rooney and Martial were in action at Wembley on Tuesday night when England took on France in an emotional occasion just four days after the Paris terror attacks. When the atrocities occurred, Martial, along with France and United teammate Morgan Schneiderlin and Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger had been playing in a friendly at the Stade de France as explosions could be heard outside. Schweinsteiger was then set to be part of the squad that took on the Netherlands in Hannover, only for the match to be called off shortly before kickoff because of security concerns. And Van Gaal revealed that he did not yet know whether midfield duo Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger would be in the right frame of mind for Saturday.
“What they told me is private but we have communicated, of course,” Van Gaal said. “I think, for every human being in this world, it is a big blow. I don't think I have to mention what our discussions were. Martial cannot play because he is injured. Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin can play, if we don’t take into account this event that has happened.”
Martial had left Wembley, where France took on England on Tuesday, on crutches, sparking fears that the 19-year-old could be set for a long spell on the sidelines. However, Van Gaal suggested that the former Monaco starlet should be fit Wednesday’s Champions League encounter at home to PSV Eindhoven.
Still, it leaves Van Gaal facing a significant headache for the trip to Vicarage Road, which United go into two points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City and Arsenal. With Rooney, Martial and Fellaini all sidelined, the United manager has lost three players who can occupy the striker role. Another, James Wilson, is not yet capable of playing the full 90 minutes due to a lack of match fitness.
There may be difficulty, then, breaking down a Watford side that have built a strong start to the season upon the foundation of an impressive defensive record. On the back of promotion to the Premier League last season, Watford may have scored only 11 goals in their first 12 games, but they have only conceded 12 -- a figure bettered by only four clubs.
Even after a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City before the international break, Watford still sit a comfortable 11th place in table, and eight points clear of the relegation places they are desperate to avoid falling into. It has been a particularly impressive start for manager Quique Sánchez Flores, who took over this summer, becoming the fifth man to take up the post at Watford in the past 12 months.
On Saturday, the Spaniard will come up against a familiar face. It was while he was Atlético Madrid coach that Flores handed now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea his first-team debut at the age of just 18.
“I gave David his debut,” Flores said on Thursday, reports ESPN. “He was the third-choice keeper and after one month he was first choice. He was amazing. You just need to focus on the training and watch how he is taking the ball and handling it.
“For me he is probably the best goalkeeper in the world. I got a present after two years when we separated, it was a clock.
“It would be perfect for the Premier League for him to stay and perfect for him. He needed to come here to learn.”
Flores will assess leading scorer Odion Ighalo, after the striker returned late from international duty with Nigeria. José Manuel Jurado is also a doubt with a hamstring injury, while Joel Ekstrand and Sebastian Prodl are ruled out.
Prediction: The encounter doesn’t exactly promise to be full of goals. Both sides have struggled to find the net this season, while simultaneously being miserly at the back. And with Manchester United’s lack of forward options, Van Gaal’s side are likely to struggle dearly to break through a Watford team that has been extremely well organized under Flores’ stewardship. A stalemate could be on the cards.
Predicted score: Watford 0-0 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 7:45 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra