Manchester United go into their last game in March on Saturday when they take on Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford in the search for a vital three points. After booking their place in the quarter finals of the Champions League on Tuesday with a nervous 2-1 win over Marseille, the Reds will look to go into the international break still sitting proudly on top of the table.
United will be hoping to avoid a third straight league loss after the recent away defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool. They are boosted however, by two key cup wins back to back that have gone some way to restoring lost confidence.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome on Saturday afternoon will be the home side's lengthy injury list. As it stands the Reds have just five fit defenders with one of those just back after a long lay off (Evans). They face an impressive Bolton side who will make the short trip to Old Trafford buoyed by the booking of a Wembley semi-final against Stoke last Saturday following an away victory against Birmingham.
Bolton Wanderers have had an exceptional season led ably by Owen Coyle. They currently stand in 7th place with 40 points on the board. In previous seasons and under different managers, the expectation levels were excessively lower with survival from relegation the goal at the start of each season. Since Coyle took charge in January 2010, he has led a revival that has seen them move comfortably into the top half of the elite league.
They have a relatively modest away record this season with just two wins and five draws from fourteen matches which is the 5th worst. They have lost four and drawn one of their last five away from the Reebok Stadium.
Johan Elmander is their leading scorer with eleven in all competitions. The big Swede is complimented by Kevin Davies, Ivan Klasnic and loan signing Danny Sturridge. They have a sound defence marshalled by Gary Cahill and Zat Knight and completed by the much under rated Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal.
A quirky stat about the Trotters is that they have only scored seven in the first thirty minutes in all competitions all season but have managed to score ten in the last five minutes of games. They are a definite second half team having scored double the amount of goals than in the first period.
Key Player - Stuart Holden
- Born in Aberdeen, moved to Texas aged 10
- Signed by Sunderland in 2005, suffered fractured eye socket after being attacked outside a bar in Newcastle
- Was released and returned to America
- Made his MLS debut for Houston Dynamo in May 2006, played 103 games with 15 goals
- Joined Bolton in January 2010
- USA international with 15 caps
- Had his leg broken by Nigel De Jong in March 2010
- Made the USA squad for World Cup in 2010
- Adept at set pieces, likened to David Beckham
- Was a professional gamer in 2002
With United short on numbers in the centre of midfield as well as defence, a return to 4-4-2 is likely. The possibility of both Nani and Valencia starting on the wings will have the home crowd excited and if this is the case, their effectiveness could go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Such pace will surely push the away side back deep into their half and mean it will also blunt the attacking intent of their full backs and draw their own wide men back to help out. With Carrick likely to be present, it will be vital that his repertoire of accurate passing is on song as rapid switches of play to the flanks will be needed to keep Bolton on their toes. It will be interesting to see how Nani copes with a possible left wing role after spending most of the season on the right. He certainly has the talent to use either foot and although his right is his strongest, he can still be mightily effective on his left side which will help keep the opposition guessing which side he goes.
The other tactical point to make is from a United defensive point of view. With Davies and Elmander up front and the Reds lacking their talisman Vidic, the Trotters will eye a weakness both in the centre and in the full back area. They will look to pull onto United's small full backs at set pieces and try to take advantage of this superiority by winning the first header. Look for set piece expert Holden to launch towards the tall forwards and United will have to be wary of this tactic. It also would be wrong to label Bolton a long ball side as they were under Sam Alladyce. They tend to play to their strengths and will mix short and long passes that compliment the players in their ranks.
As mentioned earlier, the back five almost pick themselves with Jonny Evans returning to fitness slowly with a slot on the bench likely. This will be Brown and Smalling's third game in four where they have been paired together with the absence of both Ferdinand and Vidic so it is hoped that a partnership will begin to show. As individuals I feel they are playing pretty well but the next stage will be to dovetail effectively. On paper they cover all bases in terms of composure, pace, aggression and positional play so it is hoped that they provide a suitable barrier to the dangerous Bolton front line.
Carrick and Gibson look sure to start in centre midfield with the current injury list and Scholes unavailable due to suspension. Both have been a little inconsistent this season but it is an opportunity to stamp their authority onto a decisive home game in the absence of others. I would expect Carrick to sit in the defensive midfield role and for Gibson to look to break forward when possible. There will be concern that they need to offer sufficient protection to the back line but considering it is a home match, it will be hoped that United will be on the front foot for the majority of the game.
I have gone for Nani and Valencia wide, perhaps more with my heart than my head! It is perfectly conceivable that Giggs could play left based on the need to be careful with the fitness of both players. In my mind, Giggs looked a little tired on Tuesday and was not at his best. There is also a chance that Rooney could play on the left with Berbatov drafted in to play in the hole but the recent form of the Englishman should see him retain his favoured role.
One man who certainly deserves to start is Javier Hernandez after his recent goal scoring form. The boss may feel that a game out of the spotlight would do him good and therefore re-instate Berbatov and I can see the logic behind this view. But my heart hopes that the "Little Pea" takes his place in a pace filled front line.
There may be a place on the bench for the returning Ji Sung Park and Michael Owen which is a boost for squad depth.
I am going to go for an exciting 3-1 home victory with United pulling away mid way through the second half as Bolton start to tire up against the pace of the Reds attack. Goals from Rooney, Nani and Gibson will be enough to see United consolidate their place at the top of the table regardless of the points haul achieved by a stuttering Arsenal at West Brom.
Nothing but three points will be acceptable on Saturday ahead of a much welcome international break. With so many injuries currently being experienced, it is hoped that the two weeks will lead to the likes of Vidic, Rafael, Anderson and Fletcher being made available for our next match against West Ham on April 2nd.
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