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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

Wembley final should bring out the best in Red Devils

United's stars can shine against weakened Southampton

Manchester United superstar Paul Pogba
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Man Utd v Southampton
Sky Sports 1, 4.30pm Sunday

Jose Mourinho has a perfect record in cup finals in English football and the Manchester United manager can once again win silverware when the Red Devils face Southampton at Wembley.

The EFL Cup would usually be considered the least important of the competitions they contest but Mourinho, who has an overall record of ten triumphs in 12 finals throughout his career, was successful on three occasions with Chelsea and United deserve to be odds-on to win in 90 minutes.

Southampton are gunning for their first major silverware since 1976 but it's a monumental task for them to go into battle with a makeshift defence against United's superstar duo Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The decision to sell veteran Jose Fonte made financial sense, particularly as he wanted to leave anyway, but surely Saints would not have made that move on January 20 had they known that Virgil van Dijk would pick up an injury two days later.

Van Dijk, clearly one of the best defenders in the Premier League, is a huge loss for a Saints side who are set to pair Maya Yoshida alongside Jack Stephens in the pivotal centre-back roles. 

The other option is recent arrival Martin Caceres, but the former Juventus man has not played a game at club level since he was in the same side as Pogba just over 12 months ago.

Caceres looks too big a risk so Stephens, who started the campaign playing for the Under-23s in the EFL Trophy, will almost certainly face the biggest test of his career at Wembley.

Stephens and Yoshida defended resolutely in the semi-final second-leg win over Liverpool at Anfield, although the hosts were missing Sadio Mane and the Reds' win percentage drops from 70 per cent with the former Saint down to 27 when he is absent.

Southampton have lost six of their last eight Premier League games and the wins came over struggling Leicester and Sunderland, but Claude Puel may argue that he has rotated his squad to concentrate on this competition.

Saints will be fresher - they have had a fortnight off - but United are relentless at the moment with 15 wins in their last 19 games as they continue to fight on four fronts.

Mourinho possibly made a mistake in selecting such a strong side in St-Etienne on Wednesday as goalscorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked up an injury which has ruled him out of the final.

However, that 1-0 success made it five victories on the spin with only one goal conceded. You have to go back 25 matches for the last time United shipped more than once in a game and on that occasion Mourinho had made big changes to his squad when they visited Fenerbahce.

Mourinho seems to have settled on his team now and while January arrival Manolo Gabbiadini gives Southampton a much-needed focal point to their attack, United possess the magic of Ibrahimovic.

The Swedish legend has notched 24 times for United, including twice against Southampton in the Premier League, and with Pogba finding his passing range there is enough in the Red Devils' ranks to get Mourinho off the mark in his quest to take trophies to Old Trafford. 

Manchester United
2pts 4-5 general

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Team news
Manchester United
A late decision will be made on Phil Jones, but Michael Carrick has been declared fit. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been ruled out.

Martin Caceres has trained but the new recruit seems more likely to start on the bench. Charlie Austin, Virgil van Dijk, Jeremy Pied, Matt Targett and Alex McCarthy are long-term absentees, although Sofiane Boufal may return from an ankle problem.

Key stat
Jose Mourinho's last six cup finals have all produced under 2.5 goals with just nine goals in total scored during normal time

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Southampton are gunning for their first major silverware since 1976 but it's a monumental task to go into battle with a makeshift defence against Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic
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