WIGAN, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: Nani of Manchester United is challenged by Gary Caldwell of Wigan Athletic during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester United at the DW Stadium on February 26, 2011 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
After successive trips to London for their past two league ties, Manchester United return home to Old Trafford for a Boxing Day clash with Wigan Athletic. The Latics earned promotion from the Championship in 2005 and as a result of this current run being their only existence in England's top-flight, they have only faced Manchester United 13 times in their history -- with United winning each of those contests by a combined 41 to 4 scoreline. During this same fixture last season in November 2010, the Reds comfortably defeated a 9-man Wigan side after both Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) headed home goals. During the return fixture in late February, United poured in four goals -- led by Chicharito's brace -- during a rout at the DW Stadium.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting 2nd in the league table with 42 points from 17 matches. Although this pace of points would equate to 94 over a full season -- which historically has only been topped once since the existence of the Premier League -- Sir Alex Ferguson's side still trail rival Manchester City by two points at Christmas time. Since the derby loss to City in October, United have gone 8 successive matches unbeaten in league -- with the only points dropped being the controversial draw with Newcastle in late November.
Team News: Injuries continue to be a hindrance for the squad. Captain Nemanja Vidic has already been lost for the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament while midfielder Darren Fletcher is unlikely to feature this season as well due to illness. The likes of Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Michael Owen, and Fabio continue to be unavailable as they recover from injury while winger Ashley Young is also expected to be out for several weeks after sustaining a knock during the recent match versus Fulham. Rio Ferdinand also missed the Fulham match due to injury and it is uncertain if the knock on his foot will keep him out for this Wigan tie. Phil Jones has been ruled fit after he was substituted off at Fulham due to an errant elbow to his jaw from Clint Dempsey.
Form Guide: Roberto Martinez's side currently sit in the relegation zone at 18th in the table but they recently have been on a good run of form. After earning a 2-1 away victory at The Hawthorns versus West Bromwich Albion on December 10, Wigan have gone on to earn successive draws at home versus Champions League qualification contenders Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC. Earlier this season, the Latics had suffered from 8 successive defeats but they appear to have rebounded nicely since.
Team News: Striker Hugo Rodallega returned from injury versus Liverpool as a substitute and he is expected to be available for this match. Backup goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has had a back issues and it is uncertain if he will be available as a substitute. Defender Emmerson Boyce has been ruled out due to a hamstring injury.
MUFC: After being rested versus Fulham, David de Gea is expected to feature between the posts at Old Trafford. In central defense, Jonny Evans is almost certain to start as is Ferdinand if he is ruled fit. However, both Jones and Chris Smalling are more than capble to deputise. Patrice Evra is the automatic choice at left-back when fit and at right-back, any of Smalling, Jones, or Rafael could feature. Because of the trickery that Wigan's Victor Moses presents on their left-side of attack, Smalling may be the choice due to Rafael's form and fitness being a question due to his very recent recovery from injury. In midfield, Michael Carrick is an automatic choice at the moment and he is most likely partnered by Jones or Ryan Giggs in the center. On the flanks, Antonio Valencia is favored to feature against his old club on the right but both Nani and Park Ji-sung are possible as well. Either Nani or Park is the probable choice on the left. Up front, Wayne Rooney will likely be partnered by either Danny Welbeck or Chicharito.
Wigan: The selection choices for Martinez are much simpler -- it is likely a repeat of the unchanged sides that just faced Chelsea, Liverpool, and West Brom. Ali Al Habsi is his side's No. 1 while first-choice for Wigan's three-man defense is Gary Caldwell, Maymore Figueroa, Antolin Alcaraz. Wigan's width -- in both the attack and in defense -- is provided by wing-backs Ronnie Stam on the right and David Jones on the left. In the center of the park, James McCarthy and Mohammed Diame are the likely duo. In attack, Conor Sammon is probable to start over Rodallega as the fulcrum in attack while Moses is the forward on the left and Jordi Gomez is the forward on the right.
* United's wingers vs. Wigan's wing-backs: More often than not, when a more traditional back four system meets a back three system, the key tactical match-up in the contest is between the wingers and wing-backs. Whoever is more successful in pushing their counterpart back typically wins the match for their side because they are able to nullify width in attack for their opponents. Thus, in this match, the ability of United's wingers (Nani, Valencia, and Park) to pin back Stam and Jones will be vital -- this would result in Wigan's attack being isolated and predictable. Both Moses and Gomez are encouraged to go inside and when this results in them dragging their full-back with them, space opens up on the flanks for their wing-backs to get forward into. If United's wingers pin back their counterparts, they can prevent this.
* Containing Wigan's left-side of attack: The most dangerous side for Wigan's attack comes down their left. Moses is a tricky player with pace and he's typically well supported by Jones, McCarthy, and Figueroa. It is because of this threat that I projected Smalling -- a player who has featured well at right-back this season -- at right-back because he's more disciplined positionally here than Jones and also because of Rafael's presumed rustiness. Moses will drag United's right-back inside often so whoever United's right-winger is -- perhaps the hard-working Valencia or Park because of these particular match-ups-- they will need to continually track back when Wigan are in attack.
* The midfield battle: A general situation that most managers find comfort in is having a spare man in the back when defending. For example, against a side with three forwards, a manager might find most comfort by having having the wide players occupy each other while also having a spare center-back against the lead striker. Against Wigan's three-man back, Rooney may find it in his own interest -- and the team's -- if he drops deep and functionally acts as a third central-midfielder. This could result in two main benefits: (1) Wigan would have three in the back against a lone striker -- an excess of one defender that likely results in a deficiency elsewhere on the pitch. (2) The excess in the back could result in a '3 v 2' advantage in the center of the park if Rooney drops deep. Thus, United would likely control possession because of the numerical advantage and this would result in time on the ball for their skilled distributors.
KO: Monday 3:00pm GMT, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: ESPN2 (U.S.), ESPN3.com (internet)
Odds: Manchester United 1/7, Draw 13/2, Wigan 16/1
TBB prediction: Manchester United 3-0 Wigan