Two intriguing storylines are set to unfold at Old Trafford on Tuesday night as a legend returns and a potential saviour makes his bow as Manchester United play host to Cardiff City.
United’s defence of their 20th English league title has been disappointing to date with David Moyes’ side down in seventh place and with a 14 point gap to leaders Arsenal to overhaul if they are to add another trophy to their cabinet.
Enter Juan Mata, two-time Chelsea Player of the Year and the Red Devils’ new club-record signing. Jose Mourinho’s lack of faith in the 25-year-old has gifted Moyes the playmaker he so desperately needs, with the former Valencia star ticking all the boxes in the attacking department that have been left unchecked by the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia et al.
Mata’s expected debut is not the only big event happening under the watchful eyes of 75 000-odd spectators inside the Theatre of Dreams, as one of the club’s own returns to his former stomping ground as manager of the Bluebirds.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer forged an unforgettable reputation during his 11 years as a United player, with undoubtedly his most memorable contribution leading to the club’s greatest ever victory in Barcelona nearly 15 years ago.
The ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ cut his teeth as a manager in the reserves at Old Trafford, before leading Molde to their first league title in what was their centenary year in 2011, and followed that up by defending the Tippeligaen the next year.
After a less successful 2013 that still ended with silverware as they lifted the Norwegian Football Cup, but relative failure in the league as they surrendered their crown to Stromsgodet and finished sixth, Solskjaer was appointed as Malky Mackay’s successor at the Cardiff City Stadium and charged with stabilising a rather wobbly ship.
Solskjaer has won two and lost two since taking the reins on January 2, and he will be acutely aware of the challenge facing him and his last-placed Cardiff side on Tuesday night, but his grooming under the watchful gaze of Sir Alex Ferguson will no doubt have instilled the same relentless and never-say-die attitude that the Scot was renowned for.
While Mata’s involvement either from the start or as a replacement is a certainty, Moyes does have some injury concerns with strike duo Robin van Persie (thigh) and Wayne Rooney (groin), who have missed a fair chunk of action in recent weeks, could well miss out yet again.
Nemanja Vidic’s red card against Chelsea eight days ago rules him out as he serves the second of his three-match ban, while his long-time partner in the heart of defense is also a doubt, as Rio Ferdinand struggles with a knee complaint. Mercurial winger Nani is still some way off a return from a hamstring injury and Michael Carrick’s recent ankle knock is set to keep him out for a month.
Two players who could soon be wearing the now-red Bluebirds jersey are Kenwyne Jones and United’s very own Fabio, with Peter Odemwingie expected to head to Stoke as Jones moves the other way, and Rafael’s twin brother set to complete a move imminently, although it is unclear if the deals will be done in time to make their debuts on Tuesday.
Solskjaer has already started to mould the team into his own image, and Norwegian trio Mats Moller Daehli, Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Jo Inge Berget, all three of whom played under him at Molde, are likely to be crucial to his vision and hopes of success.
– Manchester United have earned 998 points at Old Trafford in Barclays Premier League history, more than any other team has managed on home soil.
– 37 points after 22 matches is the fewest Manchester United have mustered in any single Premier League campaign at this stage.
– Cardiff boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored 91 goals in 235 Premier League appearances for Manchester United between 1996-97 and 2006-07.
– The Red Devils have won two and lost three of their last five Premier League home games.
– Cardiff have the best disciplinary record in the top flight this season with just 27 yellow cards and no dismissals.
– Cardiff’s last victory away at Manchester United came in April 1954 when they ran out 3-2 winners.
– 35% of Cardiff’s goals have been headers; the highest proportion of any team in the Premier League this season.