Apart from telling Fergie to go out and buy Modric as soon as is humanely possible, the trip to Spurs taught us very little; Ok the performance was abject (to say the least) – only 43% possession, 2 corners, 4 shots on target attesting to that – but Manchester United went with a plan to sit deep and not concede, and as they did in the corresponding home fixture, dealt with the attacking threat of Tottenham superbly, coming away with a much deserved point. Birmingham visit Old Trafford on Saturday, and hovering precariously above the relegation zone, McLeish’s side will seek to show the same grit and determination which saw them scrape a point against a shamefully unbalanced Man United side in December. Hopefully then, Ferguson wont meddle with the shape as he did at St Andrews, but I am convinced we will see a few changes prior to a tricky trip to the Seaside on Tuesday evening.
With Rafael suspended O’Shea should come in at right back, and there could be a surprise start for Fabio as Evra has started the most games for United this season, and is in much need of a rest. Obertan could be recalled to the starting line-up in place of Giggs who looked tired on Sunday, and Anderson or Scholes could replace the out of sorts Fletcher. Up front, Ferguson has to decide which striker (if any) needs a breather in preparation for the Tangerines, as Hernandez vies for a starting spot.
Aside from Dann (ruled out for the season), Birmingham have a fully fit squad for the trip North, leaving McLeish with some welcome selection problems in midfield and up front. He will likely play 5 across midfield as he did in the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford last season, with ex-Olympiakos star Derbyshire potentially getting the nod to lead the line given his recent goal scoring form and the fact Jerome is not fully fit. Foster makes his first return to Old Trafford since his ill-fated spell at the club during which time Ferguson once remarked, “he is the future, that’s for sure”. That’s not to say we didn’t believe him, we did – until a tragic run of games against Arsenal, City and finally, Sunderland (where Jones out-jumped him for the equalising goal) saw his confidence shot, and he was swiftly dispatched.
This should be a game in which Nani, with a staggering 38 goals or assists in 41 appearances, thrives for the home side; Unlike the game v Tottenham, United will look to get the ball as wide as possible and as early as possible, to avoid the congested middle which was a feature in the game at Birmingham (Birmingham City v Manchester United Preview). Ineffective for much of the game on Sunday, Nani will be keen to get on the ball and target the incoming Murphy at left-back. If Hernandez starts, the duo will be looking to link as they did in the game versus Stoke where the former finished superbly from a lovely Nani centre, in a move initiated by Dimitar Berbatov.
In central midfield, Anderson should start the game, perhaps in partnership with Scholes for the first time since United’s trip to the Stadium of Light in early October. Whoever starts in central midfield will have to match the hard working and hard tackling Gardner and Ferguson who were fantastic in the December fixture, notably trying to usurp United’s passing rhythm (see chalkboard)
*Birmingham altering pressing game for United, completing double the interceptions as they did versus Aston Villa last weekend (Click to Enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
The pair could be supported by Hleb, who may switch positions with Bowyer given the latter’s ability to defend and familiarity with a wide-left birth against the threat of Nani; Hleb will be given license to roam across the width of the pitch and support the attack at every opportunity. New recruit Bentley will start wide right, and will look to cross from a variety of angles (see chalkboard) and seek out the late runs of Bowyer and Gardner in tandem with the predator Derbyshire. Bentley, had a mixed debut, attempting to impress his new suitors with 4 shots on goal from distance, but also a creditable 11 tackles; this may be one reason why his pass completion rate was so poor as he seemed to tire as the game wore on:
*Bentley variation in passing from central right (Click to Enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
On the left for United, Obertan, fresh from a hat-trick midweek, will look to get in behind veteran Carr when on the ball, and link with either Evra or the attack-minded Fabio. One interesting ploy could see Anderson playing in close vicinity to Obertan and may have some joy releasing the ball wide early and then looking to go beyond the Frenchman, who also enjoys coming inside with the ball. Versus Blackburn, Anderson seemed to have more influence on the game as time passed (not quite in sync with the timing of the goals), completing twice as many passes in the second half as he did in the first (see chalkboard). Rooney, who started sharply on Sunday but was largely erratic, may continue to start games as Ferguson hopes he can rediscover his goal-scoring form; Allowing Hernandez or Berbatov to drop deep more often than himself, and becoming a little more selfish in and around the penalty area could see Rooney bag himself a goal or two.
*Anderson growing influence as game progresses (Click to Enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
As per the Bowyer goal we conceded at St Andrews and indeed the goals conceded v Stoke and West Brom, United haven’t dealt well with the initial aerial ball into or around the box. With defensive changes expected, United should remain alert to the threat of balls from the likes of Bentley and Ferguson who both have the ability to hurt defences. However, playing higher up the pitch and seeking to go at Carr and Murphy at every opportunity, United should have enough to come away with the 3 points.
Referee: Mike Jones. Young referee, enjoying a good season, and who is not afraid to show his cards (!).
Highlights: Correctly, and bravely awarding Blackpool a penalty at Anfield, as Johnson clumsily left a leg out, tripping Varney.
Lowlights: Incorrectly sending Zabeleta off as the Argentine was headbutted by Gunner, Bacary Sagna in a recent fixture at Eastlands.
Prediction: 2-0 reds at 9/2 looks about right given United’s inability to score more than 2 in the last 9 games; Scorers Rooney and Hernandez. Half-time draw, full-time, United a decent shout at 3/1.
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