Middlesbrough fans will be hoping Aitor Karanka's departure breathes new life into their season - but Manchester United are strong favourites here. Michael Cox looks at the tactical battle and Alan Thompson picks out a good bet.
"A good performance here without him, and there might be further questions about Paul Pogba’s optimum role for United."
Middlesbrough v Manchester United
Sunday 12:00, BT Sport 1
Match Odds: Middlesbrough [6.2], Manchester United [1.74], The Draw [3.8].
This should have been a meeting between two old friends, as Aitor Karanka served as Jose Mourinho's assistant manager at Real Madrid - but the Spaniard's departure on Thursday throws Middlesbrough's preparation for this game into chaos, and means it's rather difficult to predict precisely how his former players will perform.
Mourinho has unsurprisingly spoken out in defence of Karanka, saying that he "knows the names" of the players whose dissent led to his departure, but Middlesbrough's players must now move on. And, as we've seen several times already this season, a change of manager can lead to a sudden upturn in form.
Middlesbrough seem likely to appoint an interim manager until the end of the season - and that man might be Steve Agnew, Karanka's former assistant who will be in charge this weekend.
Agnew is unlikely to make any shock selection decisions, although he may recall Stewart Downing, who had been frozen out by Karanka after a training ground row, on the left flank.
Agnew is also forced to contend with serious defensive problems as Daniel Ayala, George Friend and Calum Chambers are all considered doubtful. He could be forced to hand a full debut to 19-year-old Daniel Fry, who was introduced against Manchester City in the FA Cup last weekend but hasn't seen any Premier League action.
Otherwise the system should be roughly the same as under Karanka, with Gaston Ramirez supporting Alvaro Negredo. Middlesbrough will surely play more positively in the coming weeks, although whether a significant change will be noticeable within days of Karanka's departure is doubtful.
Mourinho is likely to rotate his side significantly here, having had little turnaround time after the 1-0 victory over Rostov on Thursday night. There are also some enforced changes, too: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera are suspended, Paul Pogba is injured, Delay Blind and Marcos Rojo might miss out too and Wayne Rooney is unlikely to be fit enough to start.
This leaves Mourinho short in central midfield, and therefore he could be forced to turn to Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini screening the defence. Neither have been regulars in recent weeks, but that combination should be capable of putting United in charge against a Middlesbrough side that tends to sit back and defend anyway.
Without Pogba, a 4-2-3-1 looks more balance for United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan can play the number 10 role, Juan Mata can drift inside from the right, while Anthony Martial will attack in behind from the left and join Marcus Rashford upfront. This feels like a nicely balanced, cohesive side - two deep midfielders to dictate the play, two creators to link passing moves, and two players going in behind. A good performance here, and there might be further questions about Pogba's optimum role for United.
Manchester United are now undefeated in their last 17 league games, the longest run of the Premier League season for any club, and it's difficult to see Middlesbrough pulling off a shock result here, considering they haven't won in their last 10 league games. The 'new manager bounce' might come into play, but not enough to prompt a home victory.
I think this match should be relatively simple for United. Not only do Middlesbrough seemingly have defensive problems, they have an atrocious scoring record too. It's therefore a Manchester United Win To Nil bet for me, at anything over [2.6].
The Betfair Trader's View: Alan Thompson
Middlesbrough sit second bottom of the Premier League table with only local rivals Sunderland below them, and it's with just three home wins to their name this campaign they welcome Jose Mourhinho’s Manchester United to the Riverside, a team unbeaten in their last 17 league starts. Their last defeat was at Stamford Bridge in October.
As well as United’s impressive league record, Boro also have to contend with the fact that their manager Aitor Karanka was sacked on Thursday leaving Steve Agnew to take over first team affairs until a replacement is found. Boro already had their work cut out to escape relegation, they are without a win in their last 10 league starts and without a goal in their last four, so while they have to start getting points on the board soon if they are to avoid the drop, I can’t see them starting that quest this weekend against a top side and with all the turmoil at the club.
Defeat in the FA Cup quarter finals last weekend could actually be an advantage for the rest of United’s season - they are now in the quarter final of the Europa League (which carries an all-important route to the Champions League) and they are still fighting for a top four finish in the Premier League. Despite the fact that they will be without their leading marksman Zlatan Ibrahimovic for this fixture, I just don’t see them slipping up at the Riverside.
I will be backing the Red Devils to continue their current undefeated run by backing them to win to nil at anything better than [2.7].