Even Juan Mata must have felt a tinge of embarrassment at being named Manchester United’s Player of the Month for February. The award itself is bordering on an oxymoron. Mata has been decent since his arrival from Chelsea but has hardly set the world alight. Yet, in what was a torrid month for the Premier League champions, competition for the award was not exactly fierce.
United won just once in February, against a meek Crystal Palace side at Selhurst Park. It says much for how far expectations have slipped that it was regarded by some as a fine performance and potentially a turning point. But not for the first time during David Moyes’ torrid first season in charge, it proved to be nothing more than the briefest flickering glimpse of dawn. A 2-0 defeat at Olympiakos and surely one of the worst European performances in the club’s history brought the curtains firmly back down.
Since the turn of the year, there have been just three wins for Manchester United in all competitions. Hopes of a place in the top four have all but disappeared, both the FA Cup and League Cup have been exited in inept fashion and it requires a dramatic turnaround to prevent the Champions League being bid farewell to in similar fashion.
This week Moyes has even penned a letter to season-ticket holders to thank them for their support and again outline his confidence that a winning side will be achieved. With that aim in mind, he arguably couldn’t have wished for better opponents on Saturday than a West Brom side in an even bigger crisis than his own.
The decision to dispense with Steve Clarke as manager, which looked highly questionable at the time, now appears that it could prove fatal to their Premier League life. Having taken their time appointing a manager, Pepe Mel has arrived and is yet to oversee a win in six matches. The club’s malaise stretches back further, with West Brom incredibly having won just once in their last 17 Premier League outings. They remain out of the relegation zone by a single point, but will not be there for much longer unless things soon improve.
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Mel proved himself an adept manager in Spain, but it was always asking a lot to throw in a man with no experience of English football and who has a starkly contrasting footballing philosophy to his predecessor. The former Real Betis boss has tried to get his team to play on the front foot, but his new players, used to a counter-attacking style, have looked ill at ease. Only when going behind have they looked more comfortable with their instructions. Still, the play has largely remained tediously pedestrian and there is a desperate lack of firepower up front for a Premier League team. A lack of investment in the playing staff is all-too apparent, yet reports suggest Mel could pay with his job if his side are defeated on Saturday.
In all four of Mel’s homes games in charge, West Brom have gone behind before taking advantage of their opponents’ lethargy to gain a point. A similar outcome is certainly possible against a Manchester United side that were woefully inert last time out in Greece. When the two teams met in the reverse fixture this season, there was a real verve about West Brom’s play in recording their first win at Old Trafford since 1978. Similar excitement seems an unlikely prospect at the Hawthorns.
Manchester United: Phil Jones is back in contention for the first time in a month, but fellow-defender Jonny Evans remains sidelined. Javier Hernandez is another absentee having been forced off with a knee injury during Mexico’s draw with Nigeria in midweek.
West Brom: Nicolas Anelka begins his five-match ban for making a ‘quenelle’ gesture. Defender Billy Jones is also ruled out with a hamstring injury, while Diego Lugano suffered a knee problem playing for Uruguay against Austria on Wednesday and will also miss out. Both Chris Brunt and James Morrison are doubts after also being involved on international duty.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 7.45 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.