Manchester United aim to avoid slow start in high-stakes Leeds opener

No Edinson Cavani, no Marcus Rashford, no Raphaël Varane, no Dean Henderson. Maybe no Jadon Sancho from the start and certainly no Jesse Lingard, who would have been drafted in by Ole Gunnar Solskjær for what the manager bills as Manchester United’s crucial Premier League curtain-raiser with Leeds at Old Trafford on Saturdaytoday.

As Solskjær plots to thwart Marcelo Bielsa’s side, he might blow a raspberry at a welcome to the campaign that has him missing three A-list acts owing to Rashford being injured, compassionate leave for Cavani, and Varane yet to complete a £41m move, with a potentially first-choice goalkeeper (Henderson) and hardly average forward replacement (Lingard) absent because of Covid and its effects.

Of Sancho, who was limited by illness to one and a half training sessions this week, Solskjær says: “He has looked sharper than expected. I can’t tell you if he’ll start.”

Last season’s corresponding fixture ended as a 6-2 drubbing of Leeds by a Manchester United who had Scott McTominay in total-destruct mode, the midfielder scoring twice in the opening three minutes before Bruno Fernandes (two), Victor Lindelöf and Daniel James joined the goal-fest.

This time Manchester United will be denuded against Bielsa’s attack devotees. Solskjær’s mantra is a non-negotiable need not to lose any title challenge in the opening weeks, citing the truism that championships are never claimed when the air is still warm but are usually ceded if the start is poor.

The Norwegian is determined 2021-22 should not be like 2020-21 when Crystal Palace were the opening-day visitors who ransacked Old Trafford (3-1) before his team’s second home outing ended as a 6-1 humiliation from Tottenham, the misery compounded by Anthony Martial’s three-game suspension for a red card.

The Frenchman never recovered, going awol all year as insipid form and injury had him scoring a desultory four league goals in 22 appearances. This came after a career-best 17 in 32 in 2019-20. Martial started last season as the United No 9 and ended it as third choice – behind Cavani and Mason Greenwood – and a sale or loan candidate.

Solskjær says of the 25-year-old: “He has come back strong and hungry. You can see that little bit of grit [of] his teeth again. He’s up for the challenge and we’re happy we have him.”

Martial may remain at United only because of the absence of Rashford and Cavani. The former’s shoulder surgery rules him out until early October, at least, meaning a minimum nine-match lay-off (six league, two in the Champions League and at least one in the Carabao Cup). Cavani arrived in Manchester only this week after being given time in Salto with his extended family.

So Martial moves back up the pecking order and it will be a surprise if he does not start against Leeds after leading the line in last Saturday’s 4-0 rout of Everton. Although he failed to score, Greenwood, Fernandes, Diogo Dalot and Harry Maguire did. Maguire is Solskjær’s captain and a centre-back who may be as disappointed as the manager that Varane has not sealed a protracted deal in time to try to help repel Patrick Bamford and company.

“The big hold-up was the isolation and quarantine,” Solskjær says of the France World Cup-winner. “He’s in Manchester now; hopefully it’ll be done soon.” Varane’s role is to stabilise a faultline in central defence that runs through Maguire’s sluggish pace and Lindelöf’s feeble aggression. Leeds’s Bielsa-driven penchant for a contest of we-will-score-more-than-you is bound to test the Maguire-Lindelöf axis where it can be hurt.

Solskjær is in classic half-full/half-empty territory. There is no Varane to up the quality centrally but Luke Shaw returns from his Euro 2020 heroics a bona fide star turn at left-back. Rashford’s pace and leadership are missing but Greenwood has had the summer off and ended last season with a burst of eight goals in 11 outings before his final three were barren.

Expect Greenwood to start alongside Martial and Sancho or James in a front three, with Greenwood and Martial interchangeable in the centre-forward position. This is where the stricken Lingard misses out, after his half-season loan at West Ham was a revelation of potent forward play that forced him back into the England squad and had him returning to his boyhood club reborn.

Henderson’s slow recovery from Covid means the headache of whom Solskjær should plump for between the posts is eased – for the moment. But David de Gea cannot afford to be as erratic as he can be. In the joust with Henderson for the No 1 jersey the Spaniard’s early return to training was a statement of intent that will enthuse his manager.

”It is going to be a big game [against Leeds], as we are all aware of the intense rivalry between these two great clubs,” De Gea says. “And it is up to us to make a good start to the season and to do so by winning this first match. I feel great, really strong, both physically and mentally. We all have to be united together. It’s a vitally important season ahead.”

It is: for the club and a manager who after third- and second-place finishes in his two full seasons, and May’s dire Europa League final loss to Villarreal, has to claim the first trophy of his tenure.

Solskjær says: “We have to get a good start; we have expectations. This club is about trophies, football and my expectations are we keep developing our style and play good football. Hopefully by March, April, May, we’re there or thereabouts.

“The team is hungry, we’ve done good business, I feel confident going into the new season but the first couple of games are always the unknown. This is a one-off game against a Marcelo team: he’s got a unique style.”