CHELSEA

v

MANCHESTER UNITED

Stamford Bridge, London
March 2, 2011, 1:15 AM IST – Live on ESPN

Chelsea host Manchester United in what has been a massive game in terms of the league for the past few seasons, but this time it is not the case with the Blues trailing United by a massive 15 points (having played a game less) with only 11 games to go. However, it is still important for Chelsea  to win this game as they find themselves in a fight for the fourth spot.

Chelsea are easily amidst their worst run since Roman Abramovich took control of the club. The month of February hasn’t been kind for the West London outfit as the reigning champions narrowly lost to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, then failed to win at Craven Cottage. If that wasn’t enough, Chelsea FC’s eternal nemesis, the penalty shootout, returned again to throw the holders out of the FA Cup, against Everton. Under tremendous pressure, Carlo Ancelotti led his team to Denmark to face Copenhagen in the first leg of round of 16 of the Champions League. It what should have been a tricky fixture, as the home-team was unbeaten at the Parken, Chelsea registered a comfortable away win. The result came as a welcome relief for the club as well as manager Carlo Ancelotti who is under tremendous pressure to save his job.

United, on the other hand, have managed to stay on top of the table despite playing far from their best, especially on their travels. However, Sir Alex would be hoping that his players would be feeling confident after thrashing Wigan 4-0 at the DW stadium as  with the Chelsea game, the Red Devils start a very tough month of March. They have to travel to Anfield next, followed by a potential FA cup tie against Arsenal,  before their Champions League game against Marseille. United need to get something out from this game with title rivals Arsenal facing a relatively easier run-in in the league.

Team News and Tactical Brief

Chelsea

Ancelotti will be without the services of long term absentees Alex and Benayoun, while the rest of the players would be available for selection. However, players are not a concern, the shape in which they line up on the pitch is. After signing the new Chelsea Number 9, the club has taken the field in at least three different formations – the 4-3-1-2 diamond, the usual 4-3-3, a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, and recently a flat 4-4-2. In the match against Copenhagen, although the midfield was a flat one with Malouda playing on left, Ramires on the right, and Lampard and Essien prowling the centre of the pitch, the strikers were not playing alongside each other as Anelka was a little deeper.

When a 4-4-2 plays against a 4-4-2, as was the case at Parken, no area on the pitch is mismatched in terms of personnel and eventually it becomes a one-on-one battle all over the pitch. The team which has better players or in form players in most of the positions, generally prevails. In this traditional formation, Ramires used his industry to not only utilise the right flank while in possession, but also drifted inwards from time to time. However, Lampard and Essien were not entirely comfortable  playing in a two-man central midfield as frankly they are not used to it, but it was the lack of quality of their opponents which made it work.

Manchester United’s most potent weapon, Nani is likely to play on the right flank, so Ancelotti can play Zhirkov in place of Malouda, not just to cover for Cole defensively but also to provide some measured crossed for the strikers. Also, David Luiz can be expected to line-up alongside Terry in the heart of defence, with Ivanovic playing at right-back in place of the inconsistent Bosingwa. A lot depends on the formation Carlo deploys. Each formation has its drawbacks; Chelsea’s familiar three-man midfield lacks creativity.  In a diamond, the flanks are under-utilized, while the absence of a right winger/forward makes the 4-3-3 ineffective. Manchester United are the masters of the 4-4-2 shape, so it would be interesting to see whether the Chelsea manager is confident enough to take them  on at their own game. Considering how well they had played together, Torres and Anelka are expected to retain their starting berth.

Probable Starting Line-up: Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole, Zhirkov, Lampard, Essien, Ramires, Anelka, Torres.

Football Fans Know Better

Manchester United

The fitness of Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs would be a cause for concern for Sir Alex as both have missed the past few games due to injury. Ferguson would desperately want Ferdinand to be fit as his team has not looked solid at the back at all with the Englishman missing from the line-up. Owen and Evans are also close to returning to  full fitness and might be on the bench for the game. However, the game comes too soon for Park, Valencia and Anderson, who are still a couple of weeks away from being involved.

Sir Alex has preferred to use a 4-5-1 formation in the big games and he might go the same route again, but this time he could go for a team which would be flexible enough to change its shape if the need arises. Berbatov is likely to start as the lone striker with Rooney taking up the left flank. The trio of Fletcher, Giggs and Carrick would take their position in the central midfield with Nani supporting them on the right flank. However, if United fall behind, the manager could well change the formation to a standard 4-4-2 using the same set of players with Rooney moving alongside Berbatov and Giggs taking his customary left-flank position. Javier Hernandez is expected to be back on the bench despite his brace against Wigan.

Nani would once again be the key man for the Red Devils as he has been so far this season. This time though, he would have to work defensively as well to keep a check on the ever-attacking Ashley Cole. The battle between Cole and Nani could well be a decisive factor in the game. Keeping Chelsea’s attacking threat from the left flank in mind, Sir Alex might well opt for John O’ Shea ahead of Rafael at the right back position.

Ferdinand, if passed fit, would take his place alongside Vidic or else  the  much improved Chris Smalling would take on the huge task of keeping Chelsea’s attackers at bay. Evra and Van Der Sar will complete the back five for the visitors.

Probable Starting Line-up: Van Der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, O’ Shea, Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs, Nani, Rooney, Berbatov.

Key Match Facts

1) Chelsea are only team in the Premier League to have a positive record against United with 12 wins and 10 defeats.

2) United have scored the most (61) goals while Chelsea have conceded the least (22) in the league so far this season.


TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR

Fernando Torres (Chelsea)


Can he be the difference?

Due to the postponement of this fixture from December to March, one thing could well be considered as a loss for Man United –  the presence of Fernando Torres in Chelsea’s line-up. ‘El Nino’ has always been a thorn in the flesh for United, especially for Vidic, in his days at Liverpool. This could well be the game when the Spanish striker chooses to come back to form and haunt his old enemies. With each passing game, Fernando’s form has improved, although he’s yet to score for his new team. He is slowly starting to settle down, and his movement and link-up with Anelka has been impressive. Will this be his night?

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United

United have been poor on their travels, and their woes can continue on a ground where they have failed to win since 2002. Chelsea showed signs of good form in Denmark and the confidence from that victory may help them edge past Manchester United. Finally, it will may boil down to the two generals; Sir Alex has a choice to make – to attack Chelsea from the beginning or to approach the game cautiously. While, Carlo has to think long and hard on his team’s formation and personnel. The battle at the Bridge will be fought as much between the ears, as on the pitch.

TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST