Manchester United entertain Crystal Palace on Wednesday night as Old Trafford tastes its first Carling Cup action of the season. Once again the United hierarchy have failed to reduce ticket prices for a match that should be used to entice families and kids to the Theatre of Dreams. Instead, it is likely that large parts of the ground will be empty and the players will be playing in front of another subdued atmosphere.
As for the game itself, United will be looking to advance past the stage they faltered at last year when West Ham United embarrassed the cup holders 4-0 at Upton Park. Similarly Crystal Palace, will be looking to reach their first semi final since 2000/01 when Liverpool convincingly dispatched of them 6-2 on aggregate.
The last meeting between the sides in this competition ended in a 2-0 win to the Reds with Saha and Richardson grabbing the goals in November 2004. There is only one survivor from the United line up that night, Darren Fletcher although it is unlikely he will feature in the tie this time around. However, a similar result to that of seven years ago will suit Sir Alex Ferguson’s men as they look to focus their attention on the Premier League festive run in.
Crystal Palace go in to Wednesday evening’s game looking for their first win in five. Dougie Freedman’s men are on a poor run of form at the moment, one which has also seen them fail to register a single goal in those five games. However, in the Carling Cup they have had some noticeable results. In the first round they saw off Crawley Town 2-0, a tie that could have been considered a potential upset given the big spending nature of the League Two club. They then caused their own upset by beating Premier League strugglers Wigan 2-1 and followed that up with a win against Middlesbrough by the same score line. They were rewarded with a tie against United when they beat the Championships pace setters Southampton by two goals to nil.
All of these ties have been at Selhurst Park though and they will face a wholly different proposition coming up against the might of Manchester United at Old Trafford. The task of getting a result will be made even tougher given the Eagles’ erratic away form. In their 9 away Championship games they have won 4, lost 5 and drew 0. Scoring 10 and conceding 12 in the process. Saying they blow hot and cold away from home would be a fair statement to make. If they are to upset the odds tomorrow night they will need some big performances from their most important players including youngsters Nathaniel Clyne and Wilfried Zaha.
Clyne has attracted some serious interest from Premier League clubs after his impressive performances at right back for Palace last season. He played in every league game, becoming the youngest ever player to do so. He has resisted the temptation to fly the Eagles’ nest thus far but it won’t be long before he is plying his trade in the Premier League. Old Trafford will be the perfect stage for him to showcase his talent and it should inspire him to put in a solid performance.
While Clyne will be tasked with keeping United’s attackers quiet, Wilfried Zaha will be given the responsibility to try and unlock the United defence with his pace and trickery. He has three goals in the competition already and five in total for the season. While not prolific in front of goal, Zaha has the attributes to trouble what will be a youthful United backline. He’ll cause problems on the counter attack whether it be by running at the defence or chasing a ball over the top. Whoever Ferguson selects at the back, they’ll need to be on their guard.
As another Carling Cup games rolls around, all the buzz is about what youngsters will feature in this tie. Sir Alex Ferguson has dropped strong hints that Paul Pogba could make his first start given the depleted nature of our midfield. Ravel Morrison could also be involved with Ferguson saying he should make the bench at the very least. Zeki Fryers should make his third start in the competition, while Jesse Lingard, Larnell Cole and the Keane twins will also be hoping to make the squad having done so in previous rounds and have been training with the first team squad. Whoever makes the squad will be accompanied by a good blend of experience and players who need minutes on the pitch.
Ferguson has said there will be wholesale changes again meaning most, if not all, who started the weekend draw against Newcastle will be left out. The only exception could be Fabio but with his twin brother needing a game after returning from injury, Rafael could get the nod. Smalling and Evans could form a strong central defensive partnership as both needs minutes after recovering from knocks. That could see Fryers occupy the left back berth like he did against Aldershot. In what will be his toughest game yet, he could be faced with the task of containing Zaha if he is employed out wide or is given a free role behind a main striker. I have no doubt he will be up to the task and put in another strong performance. Confidence will be coursing through his body given the faith Ferguson has shown in him and the positive feedback/encouragement he has received from his Twitter followers.
Ahead of the defence the front six could allow for some flexibility. Michael Owen has succumbed to injury yet again and will not be able to add to his three goals in the competition. Dimitar Berbatov was missing from the squad for the Newcastle game due to a knock but if fit he should return to lead the line. If not, Kiko Macheda and Mame Diouf could partner each other in attack. Similarly, without the experience of Berbatov, Ferguson could adopt a fluid 4-5-1 formation especially if Pogba is going to be handed his full debut. That could see Diouf or Macheda out wide allowing for the potential to move to 4-4-2 depending on the flow of the game. Antonio Valencia will likely take his place on the right wing as he continues to try and rediscover his form.
Although it will not sit easy with many United fans, it is likely Darron Gibson will make his first start of the season against Palace. It will cause even more unrest if it comes at the expense of Pogba or Morrison getting a start. However, given he was on the bench against Benfica and Newcastle it appears he is still in the Ferguson’s thoughts ahead of the aforementioned reserve players. Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are our only two recognised fit central midfielders so Ji Sung Park could again be utilised in that role alongside Gibson. Ryan Giggs could also slot in and would be a good choice to play alongside Pogba if the Frenchman was to start. It may also be suitable to have Giggs or Park play in a midfield three with Gibson and Pogba.
The team, like every other round, is very much up in the air. The fans will live in hope that our promising youngsters get the chance to shine at Old Trafford. I, for one, will not get my hopes too high. If they make the starting XI, great. If not, let’s get behind the players who are playing and get a result that will see us progress to the semi finals.
Predicted Line up: Amos, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Fryers, Valencia, Gibson, Park, Diouf, Macheda, Berbatov
Crystal Palace will be no mugs and I fully expect this to be our toughest test in the competition yet even though we are at home. Saying that, Palace are on a dismal scoreless run and if United field a strong defence like the one I have predicted, I can’t see them breaching that. We should have enough in attack to grab the goals that will see us through comfortably in the end so I’ll go with 3-0.
By Mick Higgins (Follow me on Twitter)
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