MANCHESTER: Four years after he left through the back door, Manchester United will roll out the red carpet for Paul Pogba’s second debut in Friday’s Premier League home game with Southampton.
Pogba first donned a United first-team shirt when he came on as a half-time substitute for Ryan Giggs in a 3-0 League Cup win over Leeds United in front of 31,031 people at Elland Road in September 2011.
His return to action for the club will not be so inauspicious, after United paid Juventus a world-record 89 million pounds (105 million euros, $116 million) to bring the French midfielder back to Old Trafford.
Pogba has not played since France’s 1-0 loss to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final on July 10, but United manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday: “He is ready to play.
“Ninety minutes, I don’t believe. Super performance, I don’t believe. But in conditions to accelerate his process of integration in the team, that’s for sure.
“Paul is training for more than a week, around 10, 11 days. The adaptation is really easy because he’s a boy from here.”
Pogba, 23, missed United’s 3-1 win at Bournemouth last Sunday due to a suspension carried over from last season’s Coppa Italia, but his lack of match fitness meant he was unlikely to have featured anyway.
Should he play from the start, Mourinho must decide how to fit him into the team.
Mourinho has started the season with a 4-2-3-1 formation and Pogba is expected to take up one of the midfield berths in front of the back four.
Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera occupied those roles at Bournemouth.
Much has changed since Pogba’s last United appearance, in a 5-0 league win away to Wolverhampton Wanderers in March 2012.
Alex Ferguson retired as manager the following year and Mourinho is the third man to have succeeded him, while former stalwarts such as Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are no longer around.
But Mourinho’s new-look team made an assured start to their league campaign at Bournemouth, with new signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eric Bailly impressing, the former scoring his first Premier League goal.
Victory over Southampton, in the first of 10 Friday night games in the Premier League this season, will enable United to provisionally go three points clear at the top of the table.
Southampton won 1-0 on both their most recent visits to Old Trafford, with Charlie Austin’s 87th-minute header securing victory last January, but they are also a team in transition.
Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama have left and Claude Puel has succeeded Ronald Koeman as manager.
The south-coast club, who finished one place below United in sixth last season, unveiled a new diamond midfield in last weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Watford.
Dusan Tadic took up the number 10 role and winger Nathan Redmond, signed from Norwich City for a reported 10 million pounds, played up front, crowning his debut with a volleyed second-half equaliser.
Puel has warned that Southampton’s last two results at Old Trafford will count for nothing on Friday and he has also warned his players not to repeat the sluggish start they produced against Watford.
“Their (United’s) players have changed, their manager has changed and Southampton’s view of this team has changed,” said the former Monaco, Lyon and Nice coach.
“Against Watford I didn’t like the first half because we didn’t play our game, but the second half you can see another team and we improved and played our game.”
Puel will again be without left-back Ryan Bertrand due to a knee problem.
Portuguese centre-back Jose Fonte, who played against Pogba in the Euro 2016 final and has been strongly linked with a move to United, remains short of match fitness, but could feature.
Central defender Chris Smalling returns for United after sitting out the trip to Bournemouth through suspension.