Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is in optimistic mood as he prepares to face an old friend in Middlesbrough handler Aitor Karanka, despite facing the prospect of being without his captain.
Wayne Rooney was absent with a minor thigh problem as Manchester United recorded a fourth successive Premier League victory by beating Sunderland 3-1 on Boxing Day, and Mourinho admitted immediately after that match a quick recall may be unwise.
United are not short of attacking options even without Rooney who, in any case, has become an increasingly peripheral figure at Old Trafford this season.
Mourinho has made sure of saying all the right things with regards to the England forward’s value to his club, but the fact is he has started just eight of United’s 18 league matches under Mourinho, and has not scored in the English top division since the opening weekend.
United, though, can count on goals from elsewhere as they seek to defeat opponents led by Karanka, who was Mourinho’s assistant at Real Madrid.
Swedish veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic, having endured a mini-drought in the autumn, has well and truly put that behind him.
His neat finish against Sunderland brought his 11th goal in the last 10 matches, and took his total in all competitions to 50 for the calendar year, a period that takes in his final months at Paris Saint-Germain and his last few games with Sweden before his summer international retirement.
– ‘Team spirit fantastic’ –
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, seemingly unwanted during the opening months of the season, has hit form too.
The Armenian international may be in line to start after coming on as a substitute to score with a spectacular ‘scorpion kick’ on Boxing Day, although he was a touch fortunate his third goal in three matches was not ruled out for offside.
“The team spirit I see is just fantastic,” Mourinho said.
“It is getting better every single day and I think that is showing in the way we are playing, because some of the football we have produced in recent weeks has been very good.”
Karanka has thanked Mourinho for giving him the confidence to pursue a career in management as he prepares to go up against his mentor for the first time.
The Middlesbrough manager was assistant to the Portuguese at Real Madrid for three years from 2010, and has added to his growing reputation during a three-year reign on Teesside, guiding the club back into the Premier League in May after a seven-season absence.
“It never really crossed my mind to go into management after I finished playing,” said Karanka.
“But after working with Jose for those three years, I realised that any fears you might have about taking the plunge aren’t important.
“He has a great way about him, a manner with the players and I learned so much from him about how to make things work.”
Middlesbrough are without the Spaniard Antonio Barragan, who serves a one-match suspension after collecting a fifth booking of the season in the 1-0 defeat at Burnley that leaves them four points above the relegation zone.
Former Manchester United defender Fabio da Silva is expected to move over to right-back to deputise, as Boro go in search of a first league win at Old Trafford for almost 13 years.