Manchester United host Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, looking to end a run of two consecutive defeats in the league, after falling to reverses against Blackburn and Newcastle.
The derby win over Manchester City in the FA Cup will have gone some way to boost the Reds confidence, although the positive feeling from that game will be extinguished if United can’t take maximum points against a side currently sitting 18th in the Premier League table.
Sir Alex Ferguson knows anything other than three points will be disastrous, especially considering upcoming games against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Last season, the Red Devil’s home form was the key in securing a record breaking 19th league title, but this year, it has proved less formidable, with eight points already dropped at home. Surrender any more, and United’s title challenge will start to look under threat.
Despite losses in their last two games, it was only Boxing Day when United had completed a second successive 5-0 victory, prompting the media claim that the real Man United were back. The two results against Blackburn and Newcastle have caused doubts to appear although victory at the Etihad more than makes up for those defeats.
Bolton head into Saturday’s encounter unbeaten in three in all competitions, including a notable 2-1 success on the road at Everton, with goals from David Ngog and Gary Cahill ensuring three points on Merseyside. On the whole though, it has been a disappointing season for Owen Coyle’s men, although there have been signs in recent matches that they are starting to turn the corner.
Team Selection Thoughts
Sir Alex showed his faith in Anders Lindegaard, naming him between the sticks last Sunday despite conceding three against Newcastle. Having a steady number one is very important as it gives the team structure and balance, allowing players to strike up an understanding. So far this season, Fergie has opted to rotate the keepers, but eventually he will have to settle on a designated number one, as it can’t do a goalkeepers confidence any good if he doesn’t know whether he is starting or not. Having said that the manager could turn back to David De Gea for this game, although the keeper will face a tough challenge, given Bolton’s significant aerial threat.
Chris Smalling’s return for the derby was very welcome, considering the injuries United have had at the back so far this season. The classy defender is not only steady in defence, but is more than capable of posing problems when raiding forward. He should take his place at the heart of the defence, with Jonny Evans his likely partner. Rio Ferdinand would be the obvious choice at centre half, although there are doubts surrounding his fitness, after comments from the defender suggesting that he isn’t 100% fit. Although there is time for him to recover. Jones may start at right back, but the England International has recently suffered a dip in form and could be rested, with Rafael taking his place and the ever present Patrice Evra taking up his position on the left.
United’s midfield has been strengthened with the return of Reds legend Paul Scholes, who adds quality and vision in the centre of the park. He made a cameo appearance against City, completing 97% of his passes, and finding his teammates on more occasions than any Blues player. His match fitness must come into question though, and he could once again be restricted to a place on the bench. If that is the case, then Michael Carrick could be partnered by Anderson, who has been working his way back into contention after a promising start to the season.
On the wings, Ashley Young remains unavailable, so it is likely that Antonio Valencia and Nani will be charged with the task of breaking down Bolton. Valencia has stood out in the last few weeks and looks more and more like the player of 2009/2010, when he and Rooney combined so devastatingly. His directness and crossing ability could prove the difference against Bolton, especially when you consider that he may well be up against Paul Robinson.
Up front, Wayne Rooney should start after proving the match winner on Sunday. His goals came at a vital time after coming under criticism from the press, and served as a perfect tonic to silence the doubters. He will be partnered by one of Hernandez, Welbeck and Berbatov, although Manchester born forward is probably favourite, after his acrobatic effort for the second against City.
Three Key Battles
Antonio Valencia vs. Paul Robinson
Valencia’s pace, power and directness causes problems for even the best full backs, as I’m sure Ashley Cole will testify after the title showdown at Old Trafford last season. Robinson isn’t known for his speed and could be in for a torrid afternoon should Valencia be on form. All United need to do is get the ball wide early and let Valencia get to the by line and the Reds will be in business.
Wayne Rooney vs. Zat Knight
Rooney found the net twice against the neighbours and will hopefully carry that form over to this game. He can be unplayable if he’s at full capacity and although Knight is good in the air, he may have problems dealing with Rooney on the ground. If Hernandez or Welbeck plays they will distract the centre halves with their movement, allowing Rooney to drop off and find space, where he can either strike at goal or look for that killer pass.
Chris Eagles vs. Patrice Evra
The ex Manchester United player will have a point to prove, and what better stage to showcase his talents than the Theatre of Dreams. Evra has looked out of sorts at times this season, and Eagles could pose problems with his trickery. Bolton’s most likely threat will be in the air, and it will be up to the likes of Eagles to provide dangerous delivery into the United box.
I expect the Sir Alex’s men to avoid three consecutive defeats in the league, and dispose of Bolton comfortably. The prospect of home defeats to Blackburn and Bolton is inconceivable and the Reds can’t afford to drop any more points, especially on home soil. With two or three key players back along with the return of Scholes, United should dominate, and with goal difference vital, expect a very attacking display.
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