Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening holds significance in terms of the title race for the away side only, as Chelsea are in danger of ending the game closer to the bottom of the table than the top. Some would argue that the predicament is entirely self-inflicted however as Chelsea and Abramovich sought to cancel the original fixture in December more than 24 hours before the scheduled kick-off time, after a sprinkling of snow and a cancelled game at the Emirates the day before – astutely aware of Man United’s momentum at the time after a crushing victory at home to Blackburn and a dominant 1-0 performance at home Arsenal.
Nearly three months on then, and Chelsea have self-imploded, leaving the door open for United. It is interesting from a psychological perspective to try and pinpoint the key catalyst for Chelsea’s demise; The answers usually proffered are the departure of Wilkins or the fact that Chelsea’s squad is in need of an overhaul – but perhaps it was simply down to the fact that they took success for granted after a fantastic double winning season; I can’t be alone in thinking Ancelotti (and key players such as Terry, Drogba and Lampard) took his eyes off the ball when he was celebrating without restraint on the open-top bus back in June 2010; (For sure, one can’t quite see Sir Alex singing “That’s Amore” so imprudently whilst sipping Champagne …).
Tactics: The game could be won from wide
Probable United Starting Lineup (4-4-1-1 v 4-4-1-1))
The game is typically fought between two variations of 4-2-3-1 though Tuesday’s game may well see two variations of 4-4-2 if both managers are to take the game to the opposition and seek to catch the other ‘off-guard’. Ancelotti has struggled to integrate Torres with Drogba and Anelka in the same team, but has recently had some success with Anelka and Torres interchanging as part of a front two. It would be a bold move to drop ‘big game’ player Drogba, but could improve the fluency of the side in doing so.
Ancelotti also has the dilemma of who to select as his fourth midfielder; whilst Mikel started the season in fantastic form, he has faded of late as Ramires has gradually embedded himself to the English game. If Chelsea do indeed deploy a 4-4-2, Ramires could be used in a central-right position in much the same way he was deployed versus FC Copenhagen. Ivanovic then will be tasked with supporting him on the overlap, as Ramires will seek to drag both Giggs and Evra out of position.
Likewise Fergie will be pondering over his attacking options after Rooney was luckily reprieved by a loophole in FA rules, for an intentional elbow aimed at McCarthy on Saturday; Berbatov was seemingly rested versus Wigan, which could signal Fergie’s intent to field both strikers in a typical 4-4-1-1, with Rooney dropping the deeper of the two and aiding the midfield with the defensive duties.
United have one defensive selection dilemma, which is at right back where Rafael will be hoping for a recall in place of the in-form O’Shea. Given the likelihood of Malouda reverting to a traditional wide left role, his attacking play in tandem with Cole could provide United’s greatest test to date. Aside from the City game, Rafael has featured in all the ‘big games’ this season and has performed remarkably well, yet O’Shea has recently come back into the team and has surprised many with his assured performances.
O’Shea 65 passes / Rafael 11 tackles (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
In essence, Fergie is left to ponder what would seem a slightly paradoxical scenario: Given O’Shea’s attacking intent in recent games (see chalkboard for comparison to Rafael), and the Brazilian’s largely underrated defensive acumen this season (11 attempted tackles at Tottenham in only 49 minutes!), does he seek to push Cole back or keep a tight defensive line, and which player would be most suited to the role identified? Im going for a surprise return for Rafael given his excellent performances versus Nasri and Bale this season, where he used the ploy of denying the opponent space by ‘hitting’ the player early; and as highlighted in the chalkboard versus Sunderland, his ability to keep his defensive position extremely well, and track the overlapping fullback as required could be crucial.
Rafael’s Passing vs. Sunderland (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
On the left hand side, both Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole – arguably the world’s finest two left backs of the last 5 years – could also play a defining role in determining the outcome of this game, yet with slightly different approaches; The chalkboard highlights the very different areas of the field in which each fullback seeks to operate; In Cole we have the quintessential attacking fullback who seeks to join the attack at every given opportunity, and is particularly astute at timing his runs beyond the opposition right back and hitting the byline, or even inverting his run towards the penalty area.
Evra, whilst very adept at providing the attacking thrust in tandem with the left winger, operates slightly further back where is strength in the tackle and reading of the game is ustilised to maximum effect as he is more of a move initiator than Cole. The Frenchman is at his best just approaching the final third of the pitch where he seeks to engage the central midfielders and false 9 role of the team. Evra will be wary of the intelligent movement of both Anelka and Malouda who will work across the width of the pitch in support of Torres at times.
Evra v Cole: Similar passing stats, different approach (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
In Darren Fletcher and Michael Essien, we had arguably the two form central midfielders of last season coming head to head, but this season has seen the two players struggle to rekindle their fine form. Their battle in midfield could be a decisive factor, not least because it will be their harrying and passing the ball out to wide positions which could influence the game.
Both sets of fullbacks could provide the answer in what should be a tightly fought affair. The onus will be on the likes of veterans Scholes and Lampard to spread the play as early as possible, and their subsequent runs from deep could prove prosperous as both players will take it in turns with their midfield partners to hit the box. Whilst United haven’t been at their sterling best this season, they have remained solid, and crucially, fully focused on regaining their title; Despite the influence of the impetuous Abramovich, the same cant be said for Chelsea, and in particular their manager who has failed to rejuvenate the team and squad after last season’s success.
Referee: Martin Atkinson – arguably the second best referee in the UK –despite wrongly awarding a freekick against Darren Fletcher which led to the winning Chelsea goal in the corresponding fixture last season.
Highlights: Correctly showing both Rodallega and Jermain Defoe the red card in both the United v Wigan and Aston Villa v Tottenham fixtures respectively.
Lowlights: Missing the Nigel De Jong bone-crunching tackle in the Man City v Newcastle game and blowing the full-time whistle as Everton were on the counter attack in the final third versus United at Goodison.
Prediction: United are great value at 11/4 to claim their first victory here since 2002. It will be closely contested but I’m going for 2-1 victory for the reds, Rooney and Giggs the scorers.
Read the thoughts of Chelsea fans here: OSoC: Chelsea Fans on Torres and Failure To Qualify For Champions League
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