Cardiff City v Manchester United Saturday 22 December, 17:30 Live on BT Sport 1
Cardiff exceeding expectations under wily Warnock
Cardiff City boss Neil Warnock has consistently downplayed his team's hopes of competing at Premier League level and avoiding an instant relegation, but the team's results suggest the reality is somewhat different. The Bluebirds are currently clear of the dropzone and have put together a run of four top-flight home wins in five games.
Understandably, Warnock's battlers have come up short against the big hitters. They have lost to Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton, and they were shredded at home by Manchester City. Most of their victories have come against teams in the bottom half.
Defender Jazz Richards is injured, and there is a potential problem at left-back, with Joe Bennett and Greg Cunningham both trying to shake off knocks.
End of Mourinho misery should provide a boost
What is the allure of Manchester United's new interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? Is it that he is a club legend who once scored a last-gasp winner for the Red Devils in a Champions League final? Is it that he understands the ethereal "Manchester United way?" Is it that he bought Kath on reception some Norwegian chocolate?
Perhaps, simply, it is that he isn't Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho's tenure at Old Trafford had become so toxic and divisive that his removal was seen as a hugely positive step, and therefore the identity of his short-term replacement almost became a side issue. The dark shroud of negativity that Mourinho had drawn around himself and by extension his players has been torn up, and the potential salvation of the campaign can begin in earnest.
However, Mourinho's axing is a double-edged sword for some of United's consistent underachievers. The Portuguese tactician's shackles are no longer in effect, so players cannot point the finger of blame at him for tepid, limp displays. If it wasn't already, this is the time for the likes of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez to shine (when the latter is back from injury). If they don't, a section of the United fanbase will be proved right in their assertion that the club's problems run deeper than the melancholic Mourinho.
So what of Solskjaer?
Is he merely a cheery stopgap, or is there substance behind that youthful visage? The irony is that the Cardiff fans he will see on Saturday are the authority on his failures, the early mistakes that have blotted his coaching copybook. He failed to save the Bluebirds from tumbling out of the top flight, and they were continuing that descent apace when he left South Wales.
Solskjaer admits he has made errors, but there have also been successes. Winning back-to-back titles with Molde in his native Norway was a remarkable achievement, especially given the domination of the Tippeligaen by Rosenborg. At very least, we should expect United to start playing on the front foot.
Alexis Sanchez and Marcos Rojo are still sidelined, while there are doubts over Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Scott McTominay.
Solskjaer to make an instant impact
If we take Solskjaer at his word that he will bring the enjoyment back for his players and encourage them to express themselves, it shouldn't take long for their technical quality to shine through. The absence of Mourinho's brooding should lift some players, and it's worth considering Cardiff's persistent struggles against the top teams. Not only do they tend to lose to the more gifted sides, they concede a lot of goals against them (five against Manchester City, four against Liverpool, three against Arsenal.)
I'll back Manchester United to make a winning start to the Solskjaer era, and I'll back them -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [2.05].
New attitude should yield goals
Six of Cardiff's last nine Premier League games have featured at least three goals, and they find it hard to defend against the top sides. Manchester United have seen nine of their last 11 matches in all competitions feature at least three goals, including the last five.
I'm pleasantly surprised to see Over 2.5 Goals trading at 1.84, so that's the route I'm taking.
If you are looking to build an accumulator by using the Sportsbook's Same Game Multifeature, you could back a United win, Over 2.5 Goals and a goal from a potentially reinvigorated Romelu Lukaku at combined odds of 3.50.
Back Manchester United -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [2.05]