Manchester United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford on Sunday in what many are billing as an era-defining game. Sir Alex is seeking a win (and 4 points from the remaining three games) to clinch the 19th League title which would eclipse Liverpool’s 18 – his sole aim when taking charge of the Red Devils all those years ago. Chelsea however have taken 25 from a possible 27 points ahead of Sunday’s clash and a win for the Blues would put them ahead on goal difference, with Newcastle and Everton to play. Fergie will want to focus on the remarkable United home record however (dropping only 2 points to WBA all season), and he will be hopeful that his rested side can deliver a fatal blow to Ancelotti’s men.
Probable starting line-ups (4-4-1-1 v 4-3-3)
Central midfield will once again be key, and I can’t see the personnel differing too much to the Champions League game where Man United ironed out some of the inefficiencies from the league encounter when Scholes and Carrick were overpowered in the second half of the game. With Giggs, Carrick and Rooney likely to start in there, Fergie then has essentially two dilemmas, one in midfield and one in defence: Start Park on the right as he did in the home tie in the Champions League, wary of the threat of Cole and Malouda, allowing Nani to play left; or start the in-form Valencia who could capitalise in the space vacated by Cole down United’s right, and whose omission last week at the Emirates was arguably Fergie’s poorest selection decision all season. At right back then, Fergie will consider O’Shea the safer option given his presence and the fact that he has started 2/3 of the encounters with the London side thus far; however, Fabio da Silva has been in inspiring form of late deputising superbly for his brother – and it will not have escaped Fergie’s attention that it was Rafael who started in the 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge recently, albeit for only 55 minutes as Valencia was asked to cover at right back for the rest of the game. Fabio’s pace may well be more suited to the forays forward by Cole, who will seek to link with Malouda and Drogba early. Moreover, Fabio’s ability (much like his brother) to snuff out danger early, staying close to his man, and nimble and astute on the counter could prove very useful here.
It is assumed that Rooney will be asked to drop deep and sit on the likely inclusion of Mikel in the Chelsea midfield, just as he did at Arsenal last weekend. Mikel is more static than Song and therefore the distance between Rooney and Hernandez should in theory be a lot smaller than was evident in our last league outing. There is no taking away from the fact that United underperformed last weekend, but with Song winning the duel with Rooney, he was unable to make his presence felt between the lines, the result of which was often late passes and mistimed runs from Hernandez. Fergie will also warn against being pressed too high on Sunday, fresh from the Arsenal defeat where Ramsey and Wilshere pushed high on Carrick and Anderson, with the latter’s fitness seemingly a worry very early on in the game as United found themselves deeper than at any time in the season. That said, a 0-0 would have been acceptable and was on the cards until the highly unfortunate timing of the tactical change made by Sir Alex on the hour mark, as Arsenal capitalised just as Park had moved into Anderson’s position – Ramsey scoring the goal that has essentially given Chelsea a new lease of life that many thought wouldn’t be possible.
Mikel 9/10 tackle success v Spurs (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Chelsea’s rejuvenation in form and consistency then has partly coincided with Ancelotti regaining control of team selection. Torres, as it is widely accepted, has been shoehorned into the side without regard for tactical shape or player form. As touched on above, the Italian manager has reverted to his favourite 4-3-3 formation with the influential Mikel sitting in the deep midfield role (seek chalkboard and his contribution to breaking up the play), Essien and Lampard ahead of him and crucially, fan favourite Didier Drogba spearheading the forward line. I envisage a similar approach tomorrow, with the likely duo of Malouda and Kalou adopting the wide births in attacking scenarios. This shape ensures defensive cohesion, allowing for the reversion to a 4-5-1 without possession and vitally allows Lampard and Essien to alternate their attacking forays forward with midfield cover in behind. Indeed the ‘re-emergence’ of Malouda who has scored 4 goals in his last 5 Premiership games, should not go unnoticed; his ability to utilise width in the final third as well as provide cover in central midfield (see chalkboard) at key times is vital to this system, and he seems to have found his early-season form at just the right time for Chelsea.
Malouda 70/79 passes and 1 goal v West Ham (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Chelsea’s 4-3-3 is however a system United can exploit with the 4-4-1-1 (4-2-1-3 at times), meaning that Rooney can release either Park, Hernandez or Valencia on the counter attack; Luiz has performed admirably since his recent arrival, but is often a centre half who likes to take unnecessary risks; this can manifest itself in a sloppy pass, or with Hernandez’s pace in behind, perhaps a clumsy challenge? As ever when up against a 4-3-3, attacking fullbacks can mean a 2 v 1 scenario in the wide areas, and both Fabio (or O’Shea) and Evra will thus be key in such scenarios. The latter seemingly back to his best of late and providing the effervescent penetration down the left, and the former also fearless in his attacking ambition. Both fullbacks will have to time their runs carefully however, and must be wary of the movement of Drogba, Malouda and Kalou/Torres. In recent encounters (albeit in a 4-4-2) it was notable how many times Drogba and Torres came out wide to receive the ball, allowing for midfield runners down the centre; both will need to work in tandem with Park and Valencia and keep Chelsea as far as possible away from the penalty area.
A very tight and nervy game is expected with some fantastic duels all over the pitch. Vidic and Ferdinand will seek to command Drogba in the air, whilst United’s fullbacks will have to be ever vigilant of the inside movement of the wide players in Chelsea’s front three, Malouda in particular coming into some form of late. In the centre, Essien v Giggs is a tasty prospect, as is Carrick v Lampard. United will want to focus on what they do best going forward however, and Valencia’s battle with Cole, and Hernandez’s with Luiz could prove pivotal.
Referee: Howard Webb. The world’s best referee this season according to FIFA and UEFA. And alongside him, arguably the two finest assistant referees in world football, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey.
Prediction: 1-0 to United. Valencia.
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