A dejected Ashley Cole of Chelsea is comforted by his captain John Terry after firing and missing in a shootout versus Everton FC in FA Cup action. Cole has been rumored to be firing on all cylinder as of late at Cobham. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
On Tuesday evening, Barclays Premier League leader Manchester United travel to London to meet Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge. The tie will be the first meeting between the two English giants this season as the match is a re-scheduled fixture after a snowstorm caused it to be re-scheduled in December. The general consensus at the time was that Chelsea received good fortune from mother nature as they were able to avoid United at a time where the West London's club form was poor. However, come just over two months later, Chelsea are still struggling with consistency, despite a 75 million pound infusion of talent in the January transfer window. While defender David Luiz has shown well in the early going with his new club, striker Fernando Torres has yet to open his Chelsea scoring account and continues his woeful form that has carried over from his recent Liverpool FC days.
United have not won at the Bridge in nine seasons and fell to Chelsea last season by one point in the Premier League title race after two losses to the Blues during the season; this included a late season loss at Old Trafford that was likely the title-clinching match for Chelsea. The Blues currently sit 5th in the table, just outside of a UEFA Champions League qualifying spot, but they have a game and two on hand on Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, respectively. Chelsea have been eliminated from FA Cup action after losing a shootout to Everton FC, however, they appear to be in strong position to advance to the quarter-finals of Champions League play after an away 0-2 victory at FC Copenhagen. Chelsea come into the match with distractions as defender Ashley Cole has apparently shot an intern accidentally with an air-rifle. Obviously no goals or goalkeepers were harmed in 'air-rife gate' (Thank you, Thank you, I'll be here all day folks). Despite an investigation that will look into the happenings at Cobham, Cole is expected to play in tomorrow night's tie.
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Since the acquisition of Torres, Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti has struggled to find the right tactics for his personnel. The Italian manager has tried a '4-4-2 diamond' with Didier Drogboa, Nicolas Anelka, and Torres all involved but this shape is vulnerable to teams that play with width; I doubt Ancelotti uses this shape versus a United team who's main point of attack is from their wingers. Ancelotti has also tried '4-3-3' with either Drogba or Torres leading the line, but not both featured at the same time. This '4-3-3' is what Chelsea used last season during the latter half of their title run and what they've used for the majority of this season. Chelsea has also recently tried a very simple '4-4-2' shape with Florent Malouda providing width on the left and with left-back Cole supporting in the attack; but because Chelsea don't have a natural wide player on the right, they struggle with width on that side. In fact, during the the two side's first meeting last season, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson dared Chelsea to attack down the ride side with Branislav Ivanovic struggling to whip in quality and consistent crosses.
I suspect most feel that Fergie will use his typical '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape that he employs for 'big matches,' and especially away from Old Trafford. However, I have a gut feeling that Fergie will use a '4-4-2' at the Bridge on Tuesday evening. The fixture list has been congested and will continue to be in the coming weeks, but I feel that striker Dimitar Berbatov may have been rested this past weekend versus Wigan Athletic because the United boss wanted to use two strikers and two wide players versus Chelsea. If both Ryan Giggs and Nani play with two strikers and United get overrun in the middle because Chelsea go with a '4-3-3' shape, then Fergie would still have the option of shifting to a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape because of the flexibility that Giggs and Rooney provide their manager tactically. However, this is all based on the assumption that Giggs is fit to start. If he isn't then I fully expect United to play in a '4-3-3/4-5-1' shape with Rooney on the left flank. It's also possible that Fergie elects to play with a similar lineup that he featured at Wigan, where Darren Fletcher was used out wide to the right and Nani on the left.
The only injury concerns for Chelsea are Alex and Yossi Benyayoun and both will be unavailable tomorrow night. The big question for Chelsea appears to be if Didier Drogba will be included or not in the lineup. Again, much of this depends on the tactics that Ancelotti decides to use. United still have signficant injury concerns. Park Ji-Sung, Anderson, Antonio Valencia, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Owen Hargreaves continue to be out. The status of Giggs and striker Michael Owen are uncertain as well. Rooney has been cleared of any punishment from the FA after his elbow thrown at Wigan's James McCarthy at the DW Stadium this past Saturday. Again, if Giggs is unable to go or start, I expect a '4-3-3/4-5-1' with either Michael Carrick or Darron Gibson in the central midfield alongside Paul Scholes and Fletcher.
Because of the uncertainties of tactics for both teams, I'll provide two possible lineup projections for both teams. One for a '4-4-2' and '4-3-3' shape for each:
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Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United