Whilst Birmingham have been on a slippery slope of late, McLeish’s side are still a team to be reckoned with at St Andrews and lining up in a functional 4-5-1 they will be very hard to break down.
With this in mind I envisage Sir Alex will match their set-up and play either Rooney or Berbatov (or perhaps even Hernandez) as the lone striker with Giggs, Anderson and Nani in close support. Fletcher has recovered from a virus and so should replace Carrick who is deserving of a rest after starting every PL game since his return to fitness – and who is perhaps better suited to the more attack-minded West Brom on New Year’s Day. To complete the midfield 5, I have gone for a surprise start in Darron Gibson, who did very well when he came on versus Sunderland completing 24 out of 25 passes in a short space of time.
The back line should also see a change or two, with Neville (in Brown’s absence) and Smalling pushing for starts to freshen things up. The partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic however has been crucial to the recent defensive stability and I am therefore backing Fergie to make just one change to the defensive line that started versus Sunderland, with Neville replacing Rafael, who worked tirelessly against Bent and Gyan on Boxing day.
Birmingham’s strength in central midfield (though slightly static) – with the wiley veterans Ferguson and Bowyer in tandem with the hard-tackling Gardner – will not have been overlooked by Ferguson, who will seek to match them with energy and combativeness; Anderson’s driving runs forward could prove pivotal in this regard, as will Giggs’s movement inside to support the triumvirate. Giggs was instrumental versus the Black Cats, and his menacing runs forward enabled Evra in particular to overlap and attack the vacated space. On the other side, Nani’s return will be welcomed by the travelling Manchester United support, and his duel with the out of position Ridgewell could also play a major role in this match. Nani will hug the touchline at times drawing Ridgewell out wide, before coming inside to link with Rooney (or number 9); Indeed, Nani’s ability to ‘mix it up’ has been the key to Man United’s attacking intent this season, as he has looked to jink inside as much as he has to get to the by-line and deliver excellent crosses.
Prediction: Narrow 1-0 victory, Rooney finally scoring from open play for the first time since March 2010.
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