Manchester United travel to Chelsea on Sunday for a tie that could put the reds 6 points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand. Ferguson (who becomes the longest serving manager in Man United’s history this weekend) takes a fully fit squad (Scholes aside) to Stamford Bridge bursting with vigour after a thumping victory versus Blackburn and what was a surprisingly comfortable win over arch-rivals Arsenal on Monday evening. There is surely no better time to be facing the Double-wining champions as their season has plummeted into disarray, leaving the usually calm and collected Ancelotti flustered and transfixed in his technical area – and perhaps genuinely worried about his future after the recent departure of his assistant Ray Wilkins in bizarre circumstances.
Both teams will start the game with variations on a 4-2-3-1 / 4-1-4-1 formation, with both Carrick and Mikel adopting the deeper-lying starting positions. The return of this formation in crucial games has come as no surprise (Why Manchester United Must Now Revert Back To 4-2-3-1) and has served us well in the recent Arsenal and Man City games.
I think Ferguson is likely to keep the same starting line-up he deployed versus the Gunners (making it only the second time he has done so this season after the Liverpool/Bolton games), meaning that the unfortunate Berbatov will again have to sit it out. In fact, unless the United manager is tempted to counter the aerial threat of Drogba with Brown (who did a fantastic job with the Ivory Coast forward in the same fixture last season), there is very little for him to think about in terms of selection. Brown would also offer more experience lining up against the imposing attacking duo of Cole and Malouda, though Rafael has been terrific of late against two of the league’s form players in Bale and Nasri, and should get the nod ahead of Wes. Patrice Evra was also in top form versus Arsenal (and Nasri in particular), and should be brimming with confidence as he faces two further French National team colleagues in Anelka and Malouda who will both work intelligently across the width of the pitch in support of Drogba. With the captain Vidic and the ever-excellent Ferdinand making up the back four, United are back to their defensive best and will look to stifle the recently lacklustre Chelsea looking to get the ball to Rooney and Nani as quickly as possible on the counter attack.
In midfield, Fletcher will be asked to press and harry the returning Lampard as early as possible, whilst Carrick will continue to offer protection to the defensive backline, and look to orchestrate proceedings from deep when on the ball. Anderson, bouncing with verve and energy in recent displays and with a point to prove to the United faithful after securing his long-term future with the club, should keep his place ahead of Giggs; He will perhaps adopt a slightly more defensive position than normal but don’t be fooled, his uncanny ability to snuff out danger – cleverly utilising his body strength – and then produce a quick surge in pace as he drives forward with the ball could be a key facet to this game; The underrated Mikel will have to be at his alert best (with Essien) in order to combat this threat.
Park, sensational of late, will probably adopt a left starting position (this could be switched if Cole and Malouda target the attack minded right-side of United) but will be asked to track the dynamic Essien as well as the clever movement of Anelka
Credit: Guardian Chalkboard
making him less of an attacking threat in this game than in the previous two league games. This would essentially create a bank of four and a bank of 5 when the ball is lost, with Rooney staying furthest up the pitch and largely escaping defensive duties.
With a tight battle in midfield, the ability to exploit the wide areas in the final third will once again be key. Rafael and Evra will take it in turn to support the front three, but equally Chelsea have been at their best this season when Cole and Ferreira have made timely runs into the attacking areas.
Last season: Lost 1-0. John Terry scored a late goal from a freekick that never was as United dominated in possession and scoring chances (see mbm Premier League: Chelsea v Manchester United – as it happened).
Referee: Martin Atkinson – Despite awarding said freekick against Darren Fletcher for taking the ball cleanly (and between him and his assistant, failing to see the deliberate foul on Brown by Drogba), Atkinson is arguably the second best referee in the UK and has deserved this fixture after a tough start to his campaign.
Highlights: Correctly showing both Rodallega and Joe Cole the red card in both the United v Wigan and Liverpool v Arsenal 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 consecutive 1-0 victories for the reds, Rooney the scorer.
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