While the last Sunday of February marked the beginning of a new era, the first Sunday of March brought back memories of last season for Manchester United fans.
After lifting the Carabao Cup at Wembley, the Reds were determined to put last year’s 4-0 humiliation at Anfield behind them. Instead, they left with seven demons.
Every United player, staff member, and fan will remember this night for the rest of their life. Some of those devils are easily exorcised, not in a church, but at the Theatre of Dreams.
Thank god for Thursday’s Europa League respite – or perhaps not. Real Betis arrive at Old Trafford after a goalless La Liga draw with Champions League holders Real Madrid, who recently defeated Liverpool 5-2 at Anfield.
Nabil Fekir, who has been ruled out for the season due to a cruciate ligament injury, will surely limit the attacking threat of the fifth-placed team in Spain’s first flight. They have demonstrated this season, though, that they are no pushovers, as a seriously weakened United side discovered during a 1-0 mid-season training camp friendly loss in December.
A night under the lights at Old Trafford, on the other hand, may help ease the wounds of some players if they are allowed to play. The truth is that some might not. Or, at the very least, not from the start.
With the Liverpool disaster, four slots are arguably up for grabs. There is no doubt that Diogo Dalot outperforms Aaron Wan-Bissaka in terms of attacking ability at right back.
But, defensively, the Englishman has established his worth this season, fending off the likes of Phil Foden and Gabriel Martinelli, so it’s strange Ten Hag didn’t put him on the shut-up shop with Dalot at sixes and sevens against Cody Gakpo, Darwin Nunez, and co.
Many people have said that if you combine the two, you have the perfect right-back. Of course, you can’t, and Ten Hag must make a decision for Betis. Fred played Where’s Wally? after getting pumped when shielding a ball out for a goal kick in the first 10 minutes.
His post-World Cup performance has been impressive, with five goals and four assists. But, his lack of energy and the replacement of Scott McTominay eight minutes after the break illustrated why Ten Hag is looking for a new midfielder this summer.
Casemiro had a bad day, but given his performances this season, he can be forgiven, especially after scoring in the first half but being called offside.
On 76 minutes, Marcel Sabitzer came on to calm the ship, but he let in two more goals. Casemiro’s central midfield partner in the absence of Christian Eriksen is far from certain.
Wout Weghorst’s performance as a No.10 against a Sergio Busquet-less Barcelona was impressive, but he has subsequently struggled. There is a distinction to be made between pressing efficiently and jogging for the purpose of exerting effort while spending energy.
Weghorst is teetering on the edge of the latter, and his one goal in 13 starts doesn’t help. He was taken away after going missing for 58 minutes. Given Weghorst’s struggles and Anthony Martial’s absence, the striker position is now up for grabs.
On Sunday, Marcus Rashford started as the center forward, but his best position is on the left. Yet, if he fills the role, it leaves the left side exposed, with no clear second-choice despite a wealth of wide men.
Bruno Fernandes started there at Anfield, but he will very certainly be brought back in at Betis. When Alejandro Garnacho came in, he at least attempted to take the game to Liverpool, but the 18-year-old was understandably clueless.
With Jadon Sancho back in the fold, the Argentine would be the leading option to start on the left. Facundo Pellistri and Anthony Elanga are on their way.
The point is that if Rashford takes over as striker – and who else can if Weghorst is dropped? – the left wing becomes available.
All of this being said, it would not be surprising to see Ten Hag name the same team that faced Liverpool, directing them to right the wrongs of Anfield.
Longer term, however, certain positions have still to be cemented down, as Liverpool’s killing play revealed on Sunday. The next moves by United’s boss will be intriguing, if not thrilling.