Preview: Manchester United seek spark as Southampton close in

AFP , Sunday 11 Jan 2015

Manchester United
Manchester United's Robin van Persie, lower centre, celebrates with teammates after scoring during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Dec. 14, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Manchester United will attempt to stave off an assault on their third-place position in the Premier League table when they welcome closest pursuers Southampton to Old Trafford on Sunday.

United have gone 10 games without defeat since losing 1-0 at joint-leaders Manchester City on November 2, but they have taken only six points from a possible 12 after drawing three of their last four matches.

It has prevented Louis van Gaal's side from fully exploiting recent slip-ups by co-leaders Chelsea, who they trail by nine points, and has allowed Southampton to close to within one point.

After a run of four straight defeats in late November and early December, including a 2-1 loss in the reverse fixture, Ronald Koeman's side have won three and drawn one of their last four games.

United were fortunate to claim victory at St Mary's last month, with Robin van Persie's brace representing two of the three shots on goal they managed to muster in the 90 minutes.

But United are in much finer fettle than they were a month ago.

Their injury glut has cleared to the extent that Ashley Young (hamstring) is the only player currently unavailable, while the squad was bolstered on Thursday with the eye-catching acquisition of former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

It leaves Van Gaal with an enviable selection dilemma on his hands.

Over the festive period, the Dutchman devised a system that accommodated Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Van Persie and Radamel Falcao, and he must now find a way of fitting Angel di Maria into his team as well.

The Argentine winger made a goal-scoring return from a pelvic injury in United's 2-0 win at third-tier Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round last weekend and could start against Southampton.

- Debut for Elia? -

"Angel di Maria has played only 20 minutes and that's because of the match rhythm that I gave," said Van Gaal.

"I have said I have only one injured player (Young), but I don't have 100 percent match-fit players. That's a different thing.

"But of course Di Maria is for example further than Daley Blind or (Marcos) Rojo.

"I have to select the best team and also I have to watch the qualities of Southampton, how I can reduce that quality by my line-up, but also by our game-plan."

Left-back Luke Shaw is expected to overcome an ankle problem and play, while Dutch utility man Blind could make his return from a two-month absence due to a knee injury.

United have taken 25 points from a possible 27 at home since losing to Swansea City on the season's opening weekend, while Southampton have not won at Old Trafford since January 1998.

But Koeman, who fell out with Van Gaal during their time at Ajax, believes that United should not be satisfied with their current position in the table.

"They have great players. It is normal that they will fight for titles, I think. They have to," the Southampton coach told his pre-match press conference.

"How you can spend that money, how you can sign that kind of players and not be fighting to win titles?

"Everything is up to Man United. They have a very successful coach, they have great players, they have money, they have got great public (fans), great stadium. It is normal that you win titles."

Koeman could hand a debut to skilful Dutch winger Eljero Elia, who signed on loan from Werder Bremen last month, while right-back Nathaniel Clyne and midfielder Jack Cork have both overcome ankle injuries.

However, centre-back Maya Yoshida is on international duty with Japan and winger Sadio Mane has been named in Senegal's squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, despite currently suffering from a calf problem.

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