Contribution by Sleepy
Nik caught up with the Guardian’s Chief Football Writer, Kevin McCarra to get his thoughts ahead of Wednesday night’s tie at Stamford Bridge.
Nik: Thank you very much for joining us Kevin; it’s a pleasure to be discussing this big Champions League fixture with you. Before we come on to the selection dilemmas and thus tactics, what are your thoughts on the first leg in general Kevin?
Kevin: It is very likely to be grueling, with both sides feeling that this is the type of tie that will take every minute of three hours (and possibly extra-time) to be decided. However, I also believe that Manchester United will try to attack at Stamford Bridge, especially since it would be folly to count on a defence that is under-strength. United were unlucky to lose at Stamford Bridge in the last Premier League match there and a similar approach to the first half of that game could be adopted.
N: I think you may be on the right lines with the fitness element, especially given the fact that Man United are fighting on 3 fronts; and with the City game on the horizon, Fergie’s use of resources will be a particularly intriguing one. How do you think Chelsea will line-up?
K: Chelsea might have considered picking the same line-up [as per the league game], but of course that is not possible. Although David Luiz is only recently arrived he seems a great bargain even at £23m and has the ability to give the side a far better transition from defence to attack. His ineligibility is a blow. To my way of thinking it would be wise of Ancelotti to alter his back four as little as possible. For that reason, I would guess at Ivanovic staying at right-back while Alex is brought in at centre-half if fit – If not, Bosingwa will surely retain his place on the right.
N: And further ahead in the field?
K: The improved Ramires will probably start beside Essien and Lampard, though if Chelsea are being particularly cautious they might even put Mikel in front of the back four. That would leave space for two strikers [with Malouda left]and I could envisage Anelka playing off the front. The centre-forward issue is interesting because Drogba did well at the weekend; I expect he played the whole ninety minutes so that Torres and others had a degree of rest. Drogba is no spring chicken and it would not be a surprise if Ancelotti used him as a sub. As we have seen, managers with two forwards have a hell of a job integrating both of them. Dzeko and Tevez are another example.
N: I agree with you about Ramires (who was fantastic against Scotland in the recent friendly game) tucking in to join Essien and Lampard, though not entirely convinced Ancelotti will send his team out in similar fashion to the league game (which saw a straight 4-4-2 v 4-4-2); so perhaps we could see Anelka coming in from the right …
What are your thoughts on United’s line-up?
K: My guess would be a 4-5-1 for United. Presumably with the midfield split 2-3 in the way so many managers do. Not sure who the two are though with Fletcher supposedly still out. Whoever the personnel, I can imagine a hard-bitten trio for United in midfield; I find myself starting to agree with people who think that the era of the traditional holding player is coming to an end and that the whole managerial approach is changing. Paul Scholes was the deepest midfield player in the Manchester derby, even though the only gift the gods denied him is the ability to make a clean tackle on a regular basis.
N: It’s nice to see that you echo my thoughts with regards to the formation – I feel that despite our relative success in the first half in the league with the double pivot of Scholes and Carrick, we were over-run slightly in the second half allowing Chelsea to build a momentum in the game; Essien in particular was superb and their dominance in central areas eventually paid off. If Fletcher is still down with a virus, I envisage Anderson coming into the centre, and perhaps Park ahead of Scholes.
The defence is a tricky one at present, given Ferdinand’s long-term absence (though he has been rumoured to have trained of late), and Brown and Rafael are both battling to be fit; what are your thoughts?
K: There are some issues with United’s defence clearly, and it would certainly have been better if Ferdinand was fit to join Vidic; I happen to think that Chris Smalling is decent enough if Vidic or Ferdinand is around, but he is yet to show any personality and it must still be intimidating for him to be in the United line-up in his first season with the club.
N: Yes, I am hoping that the rumours are true and that Ferdinand will be fit enough to return sometime soon, perhaps as early as next week. But as you say Smalling has come in and been outstanding for his debut season with us; you rightly show caution however, and his distribution and positioning at times can be slightly naïve. I’m hoping for a similar display as he put in against City, tracking Tevez’s movement superbly.
What about out wide? Sir Alex has a particular dilemma in the wide areas, with Park and Valencia both coming back into the frame of late, joining Giggs and Nani (and the Da Silva twins!) as potential options right and left. Where do you see Nani’s involvement given the good form of Valencia since his return?
K: My own personal notion is that Nani should start for United and play on the left. The England v Wales game showed the absolute folly of putting a key player up against an opponent who is very suited to stopping him.
Gary Speed moved Bellamy to the left quite quickly, but Wales had gone 2-0 down by then after an opening in which Bellamy made no progress at all against Ashley Cole. In the same manner, I would try Nani on the United left, especially if the Chelsea defence seems makeshift on that flank.
N: Again, I agree – Giggs completed 90 minutes at the weekend (albeit at left back for half of the game!), so I am tempted to reason Nani may well start on the left given Valencia’s key input versus West Ham, keeping high and wide. Cole’s dalliances forward could well allow the Ecuadorian to exploit in behind?
N: Finally, who do you see playing the lone-striker role (silly question I suppose!)?
K: Well I keep on coming back to Rooney whenever I think of United. So long as he has enough freedom not get tied down in a battle with Terry; it has been good to see Rooney gradually getting back that verve he thrives on, the West Ham game (bar the swearing!) was an example of that. I believe that United will score and so feel the tie is going their way. I would caution, however, that the Champions League is the one target remaining for several of this Chelsea squad. It will be a tense and sometimes nasty tie.
N: I too would be very surprised to see either Berbatov or Hernandez selected ahead of Rooney, especially if we play a lone striker.
The breaking news seems to suggest Rooney will be banned for his weekend outburst, meaning we may lose his services for both the Fulham and Manchester City games, do you have any thoughts?
K: It might be the fact that I’m from Glasgow, but I can’t really take much notice of bad language after decades on the terracing at Hampden Park and Celtic Park. However, to be realistic, Wayne Rooney had no excuse for that outburst and I suppose the FA would have been under attack if they had ignored an incident that received wall-to-wall coverage. To my way of thinking, a fine would have been enough to show that the offence had been punished. I think a ban ought only to have applied if he did it again in the future.
N: Yes you would have thought that would be the common sense approach to the matter! Who will make the semi-finals then Kevin?
K: I haven’t got the foggiest idea who will go through. However, it’s nice for United to have the possibility of extra-time in their own stadium.
N: Very good point! Thank you so much for joining us Kevin, taking time out of your busy schedule to preview the game is much appreciated!
K: No problem at all. Though very little of my analysis will come to pass! This is because Sir Alex knows football inside out, whereas I am a just journo…
Probable Starting Line-ups
Referee: Alberto Mallenco (Spain); a talented yet authoritarian referee.
Prediction: 1-1, Rooney, Torres
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