October 18, 2014

Manchester United have gone from laughing stock to Champions League contenders.

Louis van Gaal's United (13-8-7) have endured a difficult season, with the manager struggling to settle on a cohesive side and a string of disappointing results leaving the Red Devils facing another season in the Europa League 'wilderness' or perhaps no continental play.

Or at least that has been the perception.

The reality for United is very different. Level on points with fourth-placed Manchester City going into the weekend's fixtures, Van Gaal's side are back in the mix for Champions League qualification and not completely out of the running for what would be a remarkable title challenge.

The latter seems unlikely - Leicester City are 10 points clear with 10 games remaining - but a return to Europe's elite competition is a distinct possibility following back-to-back wins over Arsenal and Watford in the last week.

And a trip to The Hawthorns to face West Bromwich Albion (9-9-10) is next up for in-form United.

"We have to win also against West Brom, because we have to continue this," Van Gaal said following the 1-0 victory over Watford. "Win and then we're close again.

"Against Arsenal we played very well. Watford was more of a fighting game. They made it very difficult for us, so the victory tastes very good - especially when our competitors have lost. The last four matches have been great, but we still have to go step by step."

The spark for the remarkable change in mood at Old Trafford has been, bizarrely, an injury crisis.

Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia are all back available for Sunday's game, but such has been the improvement in United's play in their absence that it is possible none of the four will return to Van Gaal's first XI. Luke Shaw, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Will Keane, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Donald Love remain unavailable.

Though teenage sensation Marcus Rashford did not add to his goal haul in Wednesday's 1-0 victory over the Hornets, he did make a vital goal-line clearance early in the second half to preserve the 0-0 scoreline before Juan Mata curled a 25-yard free kick into the upper right corner seven minutes from time.

Sunday's hosts West Brom have a fair share of their own injury worries, with James Morrison and Callum McManaman both unavailable in midfield and vice-captain Chris Brunt ruled out for six months with a knee injury - also ruling him out of Northern Ireland's European Championship campaign in the summer.

Former Manchester United centre-back Jonny Evans is expected to be fit to start against his old club after a hamstring problem, and the Northern Ireland international this week spoke of the adjustment he's had to make since moving to the Hawthorns in August.

"It is totally different at West Brom and it has been an eye-opener for me," Evans said. "I have had spells at international level when you are playing against superior teams, which is a different type of game, and that has helped me.

"But here you have the other side of it, when you are looking at avoiding relegation and having to get the points for safety as quickly as possible. That's what we are aiming for. Winning games in the Premier League is such a big thing, especially for a club like West Brom, and the feeling when you achieve that is fantastic."

The Baggies have lost just two of their last six Premier League games against Manchester United, but manager Tony Pulis has only one victory over the Red Devils in 13 top-flight attempts.

United are 7-2-0 all-time in the Premier League at The Hawthorns - the longest unbeaten streak for any away team since the formation of the division in 1991.

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