Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday for a pivotal fixture in the destination of the Barclays Premier League title.
By way of a preview, I will be looking at the key areas that will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the game:
Valencia vs Bertrand - Following the dismissal of Ashley Cole against Swansea, Chelsea are likely to go into the game with rookie Ryan Bertrand at left back. Even if the England international had been available, this would still have been identified as a potential area that United could exploit, bearing in mind the torrid time handed out to Cole by Valencia in recent fixtures. The Ecuadorian is in the form of his life at the moment and will truly fancy his chances of inflicting the sort of damage that could change the game. Valencia is very much an old fashioned winger. He does not possess a "trick" as such to beat his man but relies on his pace and movement to get to the byline before unleashing a testing cross. The phrase "getting chalk on his boots" is incredibly apt for him at the moment as he hugs the touchline inviting long balls from the likes of Carrick and Scholes from the centre thus helping to stretch the opposition. Another key to his recent resurgence has been the combination play with his colleague at full back meaning that his opponent has often had to deal with both. The choice of right back on Sunday appears to come between the attacking verve and youthful enthusiasm of Rafael or the more conservative and defensive selection of Chris Smalling. Ferguson's propensity to err on the side of caution will probably mean that the Englishman gets the nod but he may just alter his mindset knowing that Cole will be absent.
Welbeck/Rooney vs Terry/Luiz - The news that United fans wanted was duly announced by the boss in his weekly press conference when he revealed that Rooney, Nani, Young and Cleverley could all be in the squad travelling to London. The return of United's number ten is the most noteworthy as it means that the away side can go into the game with him playing off a front man (most likely Welbeck) with Rooney able to drop deep to assist the midfield two as he has done successfully in recent away fixtures against City and Arsenal. A key feature of the game will be how the Englishman can affect the time and space afforded to Chelsea's defensive anchor whether it is Romeu or the returning Essien. It is a role he has carried out with varying degrees of success in recent years when one remembers encounters against Mikel (successful) and Busquets (much less so!). It will be in the final third that United will hope that the forward duo will have most effect on the match up against Luiz and Terry (injury permitting, otherwise Ivanovic). Welbeck's exciting form this season owes a lot to his impressive movement and pace which has helped to stretch opposition back lines and if he can isolate either of the two centre backs then United will surely prosper. To be fair, Chelsea's defence has tightened recently somewhat from their early season mishaps but one still gets the impression that Luiz is an accident waiting to happen and either Terry or Ivanovic are susceptible to pace and guile.
Nani or Park? Boswinga or Ivanovic - The news that Nani has trained in the last couple of days will be another boost to the club based on his generally excellent form this season. When he limped off the pitch at the Emirates, many feared a lengthy absence due to a dreaded metatarsal break but these fears have been allayed and the Portuguese flyer will look to inflict similar damage on Chelsea as he did to Djourou against Arsenal. If Nani is not deemed sufficiently fit to resume his role down the left then the likely selection will be Park whose defensive capabilities can be an asset away from home but he offers little in terms of attacking threat in most situations. Ashley Young is also close to a return and United suddenly look like they have a wide range of options with which to plot the downfall of the opposition from the wide areas. In recent games, Ivanovic has been the right back of choice against United due to his defensive intelligence when compared to the more forward thinking Boswinga. Either way, Nani will fancy his chances and one hopes that he trusts his left foot a little more as his opponents have a tendency to show him inside (an option he all too frequently takes) and thus leaving themselves vulnerable to being caught flat footed as the winger goes on his left foot. The recent resurgence in form of Evra is also worth noting and his attacking threat has meant that opposition full backs have their hands full if their wide man fails to track back (as seen at Arsenal where Oxlade Chamberlain left Djourou exposed).
The midfield battle - I would expect Carrick and Giggs to be chosen in the centre at Stamford Bridge, a ground where they have excelled as a partnership in recent years (except the second half of last season's league game!). With Rooney assisting when appropriate, United will look to gain control with astute passing and sensible positioning. The injury to Ramires will be welcome to this duo who can have a tendency to lose midfield runners and the slim Brazilian can often be found ahead of his strikers as he breaks into the box. Although Lampard (if fit and selected) had this quality, age is catching up somewhat and his forward surges are not quite the threat they once were. The return of Essien (if deemed match fit) will be a huge boost for the Londoners after a lengthy lay off. Although youngster Romeu has settled in admirably, the swashbuckling Ghanaian adds bite and drive to the central area. Raul Meireles is another option in the holding midfield role but he is better suited to a more attacking position and could be unsettled by the presence of Rooney in his face. With two wide men on the pitch, look for Carrick and Giggs to attempt to spread the ball out to the wings when possible and put the onus on them to beat their opponent or to supply the ammunition for Rooney and Welbeck.
Off the bench - The return of a few of the walking wounded for United also has a knock on effect that it strengthens the options available to Ferguson if he needs to change the game or close it out. In recent weeks, the likes of the Will Keane, Pogba, Cole and Fryers have all been selected on the bench and while it is heartening to see their progress, it is asking a lot of them to change a game at the highest level. On Sunday, United's bench could possibly have the likes of Hernández, Berbatov, Young, Cleverley and Scholes all as options which significantly increases the chances of a notable impact as the starting players tire.
The Chelsea threat - The primary threat from the home side will come naturally from their front three and notably their players either side of Torres. Mata has had an encouraging start to life in the Premier League where his guile and creativity have given Chelsea an extra edge sadly lacking last season. The Spaniard has a tendency to roam across the pitch at times in order to make an impact and although from an attacking point of view this can be an asset, the left back can be left exposed. When Ashley Cole is in residence, that is less of a problem but his suspension and the subsequent promotion of Bertrand means Mata may have to be more rigid in his positioning. He will be tasked with orchestrating United's downfall by threading passes in behind Ferdinand and Evans whilst hoping that Torres has his shooting boots on. Sturridge on the right will look to isolate Evra one on one and use his movement to cause a lapse in positioning. The Frenchman will need to be wary of him at the back post as he looks to get into goal scoring positions when the ball is delivered from the left. The mis-firing Torres tends to raise his game at the prospect of facing United and there would be no better game for his potency to return than at home against their rivals. He cannot be underestimated by United's centre backs as although he has lost a yard of the once renowned blistering pace, he can still get into positions of threat.
Based on what I have written above and my general bias towards United, I will go for a 2-1 away victory. The caveat to this is the return of Rooney and Nani to the first team. If either are unfit then a low scoring draw is more likely as Ferguson may well go with Park and Scholes (as at Anfield) which would isolate Welbeck once more. Not for the first time, I have a feeling that the winner may come via an introduction from the bench so maybe a certain Mexican will pop up with a late United winner.
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