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 By Andy Mitten

Manchester United focus on cups ahead of crunch Liverpool clash

Nine of the players, who started the 2016 FA Cup final for Manchester United against Crystal Palace, began the first game of United's trophy defence against Reading on Saturday.

Of those lining up against Jaap Stam's side at Old Trafford, only Sergio Romero and Ashley Young were not in the first XI at Wembley last May, though Young came on as a substitute, when Jesse Lingard's extra-time winner provided the high point and only trophy of Louis van Gaal's managerial reign.

Saturday was a good day. United convinced in a 4-0 win against a side currently third in the Championship and Wayne Rooney finally equalled Sir Bobby Charlton's club goal record of 249, which had stood for 43 years. Whatever anyone thinks about Rooney in the final chapters of his outstanding career, history will likely remember him as a trophy-laden United legend.

Later this month, Rooney and his family will be in London, where they will be toasted by football journalists at a night in his honour. He's not as important to his team as he was, though, and United need a more prolific goalscorer other than 18-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata have each scored six goal, while Rooney has four,

United's current run of eight straight wins in all competitions is the club's best since 2009, when Sir Alex Ferguson's side won the Premier League and reached the Champions League final.

The improvement is clear and for a direct comparison of how things were, at the same stage last year United took 93 minutes and a penalty to break down third-tier Sheffield United in one of the most negative, turgid performances under Van Gaal.

Seldom was a victory greeted so pessimistically, with fans tired of a low-scoring team playing possession-heavy, dull football. It was a far cry from another third-round win against Sheffield United, which occurred on Jan. 9, 1995, which was highlighted by Eric Cantona's chip, one of his greatest goals.

Six of United's victories in the current run have come in the league and, if a seventh follows against Liverpool this weekend, then the term "title contenders" will start to be muttered, even though Jose Mourinho's could still be in the sixth place they have occupied since beating Swansea on Nov. 6.

Marcus Rashford scored twice in Manchester United's latest win.

Mourinho has settled on 15 or 16 players for the biggest games, those he trusts most. He makes tweaks, especially when there are league games in close proximity, but his current best XI is David De Gea; Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Matteo Darmian or Daley Blind; Pogba, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera; Mata, Ibrahimovic and Rashford.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marouane Fellaini, Rooney, Eric Bailly, Lingard and Martial can expect to feature regularly. Meanwhile, Young, Romero and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are peripheral/back-up players more likely to feature in the early rounds of cup competitions or, in the case of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, barely at all. Expect Depay and Schneiderlin to leave United this month.

Mourinho is taking the cups seriously and should be able to count on Luke Shaw returning against Hull on Tuesday night in the first leg of the EFL Cup semifinal at Old Trafford. The 21-year-old has not played since the last round of the competition, an epic 4-1 home win against West Ham on Nov. 30, with a groin strain given as the reason for his absence.

United really want the left-back to be a success, though their patience will not be endless for a player who was in the frame to be involved against Reading before he had a setback in training on Friday. Yet even before that, Shaw's performances were not to the desired level and he was substituted in consecutive league games against Manchester City and Watford earlier this season.

It's unusual for a United manager to publicly criticise or question a player, but both Van Gaal and Mourinho have done so with Shaw. They saw it as for motivation for Shaw, who admitted that he could have been more professional in his first season at Old Trafford. He started his second campaign looking like the player fans hoped and expected him to be, before suffering a horrific broken leg in Eindhoven.

If there's one spot that Mourinho isn't fully decided upon, then it's left-back. Shaw will have a chance to make it his own again, while Blind and Darmian have also played there. Also set to be in the mix is Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who will return to the club from Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The 19-year-old Mancunian impressed, especially with his crossing, in 14 first-team appearances last season and joined Wolves on loan in August. Although he was initially a regular, he has not started a league match since a 3-2 home defeat to Derby on Nov. 5 and has found opportunities hard to come by since Paul Lambert took charge. Borthwick-Jackson has also been advised against asking his manager why he has not featured.

Mourinho, who thinks the defender has a future at United, has been unhappy with the lack of playing time, as well as being surprised, given Wolves paid a large loan fee for the teenager. Borthwick-Jackson was determined to make the move work and even rented an apartment in the Wolverhampton area, when other players from Manchester drive in each day.

Though Wolves initially indicated that they were going to play him in Saturday's FA Cup tie at Stoke, Borthwick-Jackson did not feature and has returned to Manchester. Unless he goes out on loan again, he'll stay at United, who are in the midst of a busy week: A reserve derby against Manchester City on Monday and a first-team game on Tuesday follow Saturday's FA Cup tie, all of which lead up to Sunday's game against Liverpool. 

Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.

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