Tuesday, 29 November 2011

United vs Palace Carling Cup Preview

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.

The Opposition
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

Scoreline Prediction
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)

Please feel free to leave your thoughts on the game below.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Swansea vs Manchester United Big Match Preview

Manchester United return to Premier League action when they face top flight new boys Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening.  The Reds will be making their first trip to a different country for a Premier League game after the Swans became the first Welsh side to reach the Premier League when they beat Reading 4-2 in the Championships play offs.

Swansea go in to the match unbeaten at home having won 3 and drawn 2.  This is identical to United’s away record which is a marked improvement on last term when they won only 4 away games all season en route to winning a record 19th title.  United will need to keep up this resurgent away form if they are to leave Wales with a point never mind all three given the impressive home record of the Swans.  They have only conceded one goal at home and even that came via their own player, a Danny Graham own goal in a 3-1 victory against Bolton.  This will prove a tough game for United to resume their quest for a 20th league title after an international break and Ferguson’s men will need to be at the top of their game if they are to keep in touch with City at the top of the table.

The Opposition
Brendan Rodgers has largely stuck with the players who helped the club gain promotion to the Premier League but he has made a few astute additions and this has resulted in an impressive start to their maiden campaign in the top flight.  Michel Vorm, or SuperVorm as he has been nicknamed, a £1.5 million capture from Utrecht, has been a stand out performer so far this season. Rooney and Co will need to be sharp in front goal if they are to beat the Dutchman.  While Vorm has been keeping them out, record signing Danny Graham has added some much needed firepower at the other end of the pitch.  After a slow start to the season he has finally found his feet, bagging four goals in his last five games (or five goals if you count the OG!).

While these two players have consolidated the spine of the team, it is arguably the players that Rodgers retained in the middle of the park that has been a massive factor in Swansea sitting pretty in tenth position.  Leon Britton and Joe Allen have been excellent all season and their passing football has put established Premier League teams to shame.  They play the game the right way and they have been a joy to watch thus far.  Britton rightly received the plaudits for a masterclass in keeping the ball in the match against Liverpool when he finished with 100% pass completion; the only player to do so in the Premier League this season.

While Rodgers will be happy at the start they have had to the season, his job now is to make sure this continues.  He will be well aware they have been on the wrong end of thrashings against the other title challengers and will want to avoid the same fate against the Champions.  In fairness those heavy defeats have come away from home and it is no exaggeration to say Rodgers’ men are a wholly different proposition at the Liberty Stadium.  This will be their toughest test at home and one I’m sure they will relish. 

Rodgers will go in to the game with a game plan but I don’t expect it to differ much from the way they have been playing all season. They will keep the ball, play it simple and try to hurt United when the opportunity arises.  The game sold out weeks in advance and the crowd will play a big part.  It will be a vociferous atmosphere and the Swansea fans will be coming to the game full of confidence, expecting their team to get a result.

Sir Alex Ferguson dealt the devastating blow that Tom Cleverley is likely to be out til Christmas with the ankle injury he sustained against Everton.  This is a crushing blow to the Reds given the underwhelming performances in Tom’s absence.  Ferguson also said Chris Smalling would miss out against Swansea as will Danny Welbeck who picked up a knock up while on away with England.  On a more positive note, Ashley Young is fit and will travel to Wales as might Rafael who made his comeback from injury in the Reserves 4-1 win against Wigan on Thursday night.  The squad which does make the 400 mile round trip should be fresh given key players like Rooney, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick and Park all stayed at home while some of their colleagues ventured across the globe.

The international hiatus could not have come at a worse time for United.  After the 6-1 mauling at the hands of City, Ferguson rallied his troops and although performances were far from convincing, the Reds were on a four game clean sheet streak.  There was momentum gathering and a continuity that would have been better to sustain rather than have it disrupted with this inconvenience.  However, confidence should be restored and I’m sure Sir Alex has drilled it in to the players that stayed at Carrington the need to maintain the clean sheet streak and push on with a sequence of wins in the run up to the festive period.

David De Gea, fresh from another clean sheet with Spain under 21s, should take over between the sticks after Lindergaard was given the 90 minutes against Sunderland.  In front of him, Ferguson must decide whether to go with Evans or Ferdinand as Vidic’s partner in the centre of defence.  With Rafael just returning from injury and looking rusty midweek and Fabio being on the wrong end of a horrendous tackle while with Brazil, Phil Jones should slot in at right back once again after starring for England in central midfield.  A defence of Jones, Rio, Vidic and Evra should be strong enough to contain Swansea if they perform like they did before the break.

It will be then up to the front 6 to break down a stingy Swansea defence.  While Rooney has been competent in central midfield in recent games, he’s a striker and should be moved up top again.  He could be partnered with Berbatov who should be boosted by the news Ferguson has no plans to sell him and sees him as an integral part of the team.  Hernandez may have to settle for a place on the bench after travelling to Mexico last week but given the game was last Friday, he may be suitably rested and ready to start. 

With Rooney moving forward, Michael Carrick should make his first Premier League start of the season and could be partnered by either Darren Fletcher or Anderson.  On the wings, Nani will be high on confidence after helping Portugal secure their place at Euro 2012 with a wonder goal but 3 games in a week coupled with all the travelling may prove too much for the winger.  Ashley Young may be recalled after his injury although it is unclear how much he has trained this week.  It may give an opportunity to Valencia, who himself has said he needs games, and Park Ji Sung to provide the width.

Given the injuries to certain players and question marks of the match fitness of others, Saturday could see Paul Pogba or Ravel Morrison make the bench.  Morrison was mightily impressive against Wigan on Thursday, scoring two beautiful goals and it would not have gone unnoticed with the United manager. Although I refuse to get my hopes up it would be nice to see Morrison rewarded with a spot on the bench after a sparkling performance.  His ingenuity may just be what is required to unlock the Swansea defence.

Starting XI: De Gea, Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Fletcher, Park, Rooney, Hernandez

Score Prediction
I refuse to be confident going in to this game.  Swansea are a formidable outfit at home and will fancy their chances on Saturday.  Personally I think it could be a draw. However, given City could be 8 points clear the time United kick off it is imperative we get the three points.  We should be strong enough in defence to repel the threat of Graham, Sinclair and Dyer thus it will depend on whether we have the cutting edge to sneak a goal past Vorm. I will go with a narrow and hard fought 1-0 win.

By Mick Higgins (Follow me on Twitter)

What would be your team selection and score prediction for the game? Please leave any comments below.