Pogba and Ibra return a boost for Mourinho in title tussle with Man City
Manchester United's match against Newcastle United could see "the return of the kings" with Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic available for selection.
It is the first time in several months these players, both acknowledged as leading presences within the dressing room, have been part of the same squad. Ibrahimovic, should he take the field, will join a team no longer designed around him. That mantle has now passed, in dramatic fashion, to Pogba. This shift in dynamics will be one of the afternoon's many intriguing narratives. Since Ibrahimovic left the team, it has almost overnight become one of the quickest attacks in Europe, though not necessarily one of the most effective -- particularly not against the toughest opposition. Ibrahimovic, though profligate at times last season, could still be counted to score when contests were at their most intense -- witness, for example, his late equaliser against Liverpool in the Premier League clash at Old Trafford.
That moment was a symbolic one, coming as it did after one of Pogba's worst performances in a United shirt. It was but one example last year -- the EFL final being another -- where Ibrahimovic seemed to be playing "big brother" to Pogba, carrying United to either parity or victory while his younger teammate seemed to be struggling with the weight of his transfer fee. Pogba doesn't seem to be struggling now, though, and the question is what role Ibrahimovic will have for United. He may operate as the sole focus of the attack, as relief for Romelu Lukaku, and his lack of pace is not so significant now as he is surrounded by speedy forwards.
Another interesting point of note is the return from injury of Marcos Rojo. He had been in excellent form until he was sidelined in April, and his availability gives Mourinho another option. He is comfortable playing not only as one of two centre-backs, but as the left of three centre-backs, which would suit the formation that Mourinho has chosen to deploy. Rojo's prompt passing from the back will be a considerable asset to United's counterattacking game, which has foundered a little in recent weeks due to their failure to work the ball quickly through midfield.
The unavoidable factor in this clash, of course, is Mourinho's reacquaintance with Rafael Benitez, with whom he has had an acrimonious relationship. By rights, they should both be too busy for conflict, given they are concerned with substantially rebuilding their squads. Having said that, Mourinho has generally found time for a sly jibe.
Yet this is a time for United to be especially business-like. There is nothing triumphal about their recent form -- like Newcastle, they have lost two of their past three games in the Premier League, which is reasonable for a midtable side but not for one with title ambitions. Like United, Newcastle's concerns are in attack. They are conceding less than a goal per game, and can boast the fifth-best defensive record in the division. However, they have scored only 10 times in 11 matches. United have scored only twice in their past three league matches, with Lukaku -- often maligned for the quality of his all-around play -- providing the assist for both.
The indications are, based on these teams' past few performances, that the encounter will end in a low-scoring draw -- which is perhaps fitting, given the defensive reputation of their respective coaches. Yet there is a little more to it than that. Newcastle are likely to let United have far more of the ball, and -- particularly at home -- they are an entirely different proposition with Pogba in the side. The France midfielder will add a promptness and precision of passing that Ander Herrera has sadly, for the most part, been unable to conjure in his absence. Keenly aware they can afford to concede no further ground on Manchester City -- who have already scored 15 goals more than them, and lead by eight points -- United are likely to make a vigorous effort in the game's early minutes.
They will be met with significant resistance -- Newcastle, after all, managed to hold free-scoring Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at St. James' Park earlier this season. Given Lukaku's recent difficulties in front of goal -- owing, in his defence, to a much-diminished supply of opportunities -- it would be poetic if Ibrahimovic was called upon to provide the breakthrough.
Since United have, at full strength, shown a tendency to come up with late goals, they should approach the clash with confidence. And even if they don't, Zlatan will be waiting in the wings. He has spoken often of his unfinished business at Old Trafford, and his desire to claim a title. Saturday is as good a place and a stage as any for the Swede to resume that campaign.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.