MIDDLESBROUGH: Paul Pogba’s absence has given Jose Mourinho another headache as Manchester United look to revive their Champions League qualification hopes at managerless Middlesbrough on Sunday.
United midfielder Pogba will miss the Premier League fixture, plus France’s forthcoming matches against Luxembourg and Spain, with a hamstring problem sustained during Thursday’s 1-0 Europa League victory over Rostov.
Mourinho is hopeful Pogba, who has had an inconsistent season following his world record move from Juventus, will be ready after the next international break.
But the United manager will have to rejig his midfield as he attempts to boost his team’s challenge for a place in next season’s Champions League.
In truth, their best hope of qualifying for that competition may be to win the Europa League, given that they go into the weekend in sixth in the table, six points behind fourth placed Liverpool.
United must face Middlesbrough not only without Pogba, but also minus top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfielder Ander Herrera, both suspended, and they may also be missing defender Daley Blind, who suffered a head injury against Rostov.
Thursday’s win set up a two-legged Europa League quarter-final tie against Anderlecht next month, but also added to the fixture congestion that has left Mourinho deeply unhappy.
The Portuguese coach was not pleased that their FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Chelsea, originally scheduled for last weekend, was moved to Monday so it could be televised.
He has also criticised the Premier League for ordering the match at Middlesbrough to kick-off at 1200 GMT, again to suit the demands of television, arguing that a later kick-off on Sunday would have given his players a crucial extra few hours to rest.
“We have lots of enemies. It’s difficult to play Monday with 10 men, it’s difficult to play on Thursday, it’s difficult to play 12 o’clock on Sunday,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a funny situation. When I watch marathons and people go to their limit, I don’t think it is funny, and I don’t think it’s funny some of my players in six weeks play 11 matches.
“Play on Monday with 10 men, enjoying five hours on the M6 coming back to Manchester.
“We are living all these things and let’s see if Sunday we get a point. That would be great result.”
United captain Wayne Rooney, left out of the England squad for the forthcoming matches against Germany and Lithuania, has declared himself fit after a recent knee injury, and may be recalled.
Meanwhile, Steve Agnew insists he can fill the void left by the sacking of Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka.
The club’s assistant manager has stepped in as caretaker after the Spaniard’s stormy three-and-a-half year reign was brought to an end with the Teessiders second-bottom of the Premier League and in danger of an immediate return to the Championship.
The 51-year-old will be given an opportunity to prove himself until the end of the season, and has brought experienced former Scotland international Joe Jordan in as his number two.
Middlesbrough are assessing other potential candidates to succeed Karanka on a permanent basis, but Agnew says the club need look no further than him to lead a successful survival fight and to lay the foundations for a brighter future.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I have had opportunities in the past but it didn’t feel quite right.
“I owe a lot to Middlesbrough, and to be given a chance is everything you need but then you have to grasp it.
“It’s a massive opportunity and it’s one I’m really looking forward to.”
Stewart Downing, the former England midfielder whose training ground bust-up with Karanka proved to be the final straw for the departed head coach, is likely to be restored to the side as Middlesbrough look to end a three-month stretch without a league victory. --AFP