Manchester United begin a pivotal week in their quest for a record 19th league title with a trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea on Tuesday night. After an ultimately comfortable three points against Wigan on Saturday, the Reds will look to heap more misery on the soon to be deposed Champions ahead of a weekend battle with arch rivals Liverpool.
The match was originally scheduled for December but was mysteriously postponed more than 24 hours ahead of kick off due to snow. The decision was made a mockery by the clear streets outside Stamford Bridge which was cited as the main reason for the game not taking place. It also happened to coincide with a period when the Blues were in a shocking run of form so the conspiracy theories were given a good airing. It could be argued that this re-scheduled game sees Chelsea not much better off in terms of form after a recent draw against Fulham and loss to Liverpool. The addition of Torres and Luiz was seen as a statement of intent from Blues owner Roman Abramovich but could ultimately cost them even a place in the Champions League places if results do not pick up soon.
Chelsea go into the game in 5th place with a record of eight wins and two draws from their twelve home matches. Their two defeats came against Sunderland and Liverpool when they failed to register on the score sheet.This time last year they had won 12 from 14 matches played at home. Of their last five at home, they have won only two.
Overall they have the best defensive record in the league with a total of 22 conceded but interestingly they have conceded more goals in the last five minutes of each half than at any other time in matches.
If they play their traditional 4-3-3 formation then expect the onus out wide to be on their full backs to provide the width. This may in turn mean that United's wide men will be detailed to keep a close eye on them and perhaps look to keep them their side of the half way line where possible. This was shown in the same fixture last year when Ashley Cole's attacking intent was nullified somewhat by the presence of Antonio Valencia.
Looking at this season's stats, Chelsea have generally struggled against teams in the top half, winning only 4 out of 12 games played. They have also won just twice when the opposition score first which emphasises just how vital in any game the first goal is.
Perhaps my favourite stat is this: If United win tomorrow, Chelsea will be18 points behind which is the same number as what separates them from the bottom of the table. Oh how the mighty have fallen!
I would expect Chelsea to line up with Torres, Anelka and Malouda up front which will no doubt make a certain Ivorian extremely unhappy. Even though they beat Copenhagen playing a 4-4-2, I would imagine they will revert to what they know for the games against United, so a midfield three of Mikel, Essien and Ramires is likely. As width will be key, I wonder if Boswinga will get the nod on the right ahead of the more defensive Ivanovic with Luiz and Terry at centre back. Alternatively Ivanovic could play there with Luiz wide.
Key Player - Nicolas Anelka
A few stats about the sulky Frenchman:
- Joined Chelsea in Jan 2008 from Bolton for £15m
- The 31 year old has 6 goals from 23 games in the league
- He is Chelsea's overall top scorer with 16
- Total career transfer fees = £66.5m including spells at Real Madrid, PSG, Arsenal, Liverpool and Fenerbahce
- 37 goals from 107 games at Chelsea
- Sent home from 2010 WC after row with boss Domenech and given 18 match ban
In my opinion, Sir Alex will revert to a 4-5-1 formation to take on Chelsea. The back five pretty much picks itself considering the injury to Ferdinand and the recent choice of O'Shea's experience at right back in preference to the youthful exuberance of Rafael. Chris Smalling will continue his education alongside Vidic in what will surely be another great experience for the youngster. Going into such a massive game such as this without the England captain would have been unthinkable until recently but the growing maturity of Smalling means that his loss is not so keenly felt.
The midfield three I have picked are solid if unspectacular and the manager may go for Darron Gibson once more ahead of Scholes if two games in quick succession are deemed too much for the veteran. Fletcher will once more be expected to support the attack when possible whilst keeping a close eye on Lampard when in defensive situations. The deepest lying midfielder will look to get the United attacks moving by spraying the ball wide whenever possible to try to keep the Chelsea full backs in their own half.
Up front I have gone for Nani right, Giggs left and Rooney up front. The return of the Welshman would be a big boost but it is by no means certain. If he does not make it then expect Rooney left and Berbatov to come in up front as happened in Marseille last week. If he is forced to play left then the boss will expect more discipline than was shown on Saturday from Rooney both in terms of temperament and team ethic.
Waiting in the wings on the bench will be Hernandez and Berbatov looking to make an impression late in the game if the need arises.
I am going to plump for a 1-1 scoreline which I think if it was offered now would be accepted by the manager. Chelsea will no doubt come out all guns blazing and look to get United on the back foot from the first whistle. If the Reds can keep the ball and look to impose themselves slowly as the game progresses then the impatient home crowd are sure to voice their anxiety. I actually think Chelsea would take a draw to save the embarrassment of effectively handing over the title at the end of the game. A cagey, dull goalless draw is a distinct possibility. However I feel there is enough in both attacks to warrant a goal apiece with United scoring through Giggs and Chelsea levelling via Malouda.
A share of the spoils and then onward to Anfield on Sunday where the challenge to finally knock Liverpool off their perch will become tantalisingly close to reality if three points can be won.
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