LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: Jason Roberts of Blackburn Rovers celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers at the Boleyn Ground on May 7, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United will take a short trip to Ewood Park to clash with Blackburn Rovers in a Barclay Premier League match. During the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in November, United striker Dimitar Berbatov scored five goals as his side thrashed the visitors 7-1. The Bulgarian's goal-scoring heroics tied a Premier League record for goals in a single game; he joined Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, and Jermain Defoe as the only others to have accomplished the feat.
Manchester United: After defeating Chelsea in convincing fashion this past Sunday at Old Trafford, United are on the brink of a 19th league title; one that would put them ahead of bitter rival Liverpool FC. The Red Devils need just a single point from their final two matches, or for Chelsea to drop points, in order to win the title. The focus for United, or at least for it's supporters, has shifted to the UEFA Champions League final, where they will face F.C. Barcelona on 28 May at Wembley. The club is riding high and they surely would like to officially earn the title this weekend at Blackburn so that they can rest key players next weekend versus Blackpool ahead of the Barcelona tie.
For the first time in awhile, United have had nearly a full week to rest players with no fixture this past mid-week. Fatigue has been a bigger concern than injury for the club as of late. Patrice Evra did suffer a knock versus Schalke 04 in the Champions League semi-final tie at Old Trafford, one that forced him to miss the match versus Chelsea. It is unlikely his health is risked for this match. John O'Shea was forced to leave the match versus Chelsea and the extent of his injury is not thought to be serious. Fabio da Silva was subbed off as well versus Chelsea due to a knock suffered; his injury isn't thought to be serious either. Owen Hargreaves continues to be out with a long-term injury.
Blackburn Rovers: The home side face a nervy run-in as the Rovers are only three points clear of the relegation zone. Manager Steve Kean's side currently sit 15th in the table and in next week's season finale, they face another relegation threatened side in Wolverhampton Wanderers. Blackburn were not only fortunate to earn a point last weekend, but they did it versus a West Ham United side that desperately needed a full three points for their own relegation worries. Striker Robbie Keane missed a sitter towards the end of the match for the East London side; it's a blunder that has heavily influenced the relegation battle. In comparison to their relegation threatened rivals, Blackburn are strong on goal-differential; a single point against United would take them to 40 for the season, likely enough to keep them up for next season.
Ryan Nelson and Mame Biram Diouf will be unavailable for the match; the former due to a season-ending knee injury and the latter due to a loan agreement that states playing against his parent club, United, is forbidden. David Dunn may miss the match as well due to a calf muscle strain. Michel Salgado, who missed last week's league tie versus West Ham, is likely to available for the match.
Last week's victory over Chelsea all but crowned United champions of England, however, they still need a point. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson and United players have made clear their intentions to wrap up the league title this weekend; this would allow them to rest key personnel ahead of their clash versus their Catalan foes in the Champions League final. This would also give the Reds another match to keep their current first-choice team sharp. Because of these factors, I anticipate that the Gaffer will play close to a full-strength side in this match. Expect to see Edwin van der Sar in goal, but he could be deputised by Tomasz Kuszczak. If Evra, O'Shea, and Fabio are all unavailable, then Jonny Evans may get a rare start at left-back. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the likely center-back pairing, although Chris Smalling may deputise if Ferguson feels that Ferdinand needs a rest. Rafael da Silva or Wes Brown may get the nod at right-back. If the current first-choice center-midfield tandem are chosen, that means Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs. If either is to be rested, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darron Gibson, or Darren Fletcher are all viable options to start. After Park Ji-sung's industrious effort versus Chelsea, he likely is rested and that could mean a start for Nani on the left-flank. The in-form Antonio Valencia is the likely choice as the wide right player. Any two of Wayne Rooney, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, Berbatov, or Michael Owen could be called upon as the striker pairing; my guess is that Wazza and Berba get the start.
Paul Robinson is the Blackburn No 1. Their center-back pairing will likely be Christopher Samba and Gael Givet. Martin Olsson is the projected left-back while Salgado is the anticipated right-back. Expect to see Jermaine Jones and Steven Nzonzi as the double pivots in central midfield, whilst Brett Emerton is the likely wide right player and David Hoilett high up the pitch as the wide left player. A chain effect possibility is Phil Jones starting at center-back alongside Samba; this could move Givet to left-back and Olsson to left-midfield. Morten Gamst Pedersen is expected to play the role as the number ten while Jason Roberts is the likely striker.
* Limiting the influence of Samba: The Blackburn center-back is physically imposing and he was dominant last week versus West Ham. It has recently been revealed that Samba nearly joined Arsenal FC in the past January transfer window. Berbatov, with his five goals, obviously had little trouble with Blackburn's defense in the last match but United should still be wary of Samba, especially in the air. His aerial presence not only helps out his side's defense, but Samba is also a threat on set pieces. It was he who scored Blackburn's lone goal at Old Trafford in November. Here's a chalkboard of Samba's dominance last week at Upton Park:
* Blackburn's left-side of attack: In last week's match, Hoilett played very high and narrow from his position on the left flank. In turn, Pedersen, Nzonzi, and Olsson spent quite a bit of time drifting to the left touchline into the open space. Most of Blackburn's attack was focused down this side against West Ham. United's defense and midfield on that side must do well to communicate and zonally defend if Blackburn continues this fluidity in their movement down this side. This may play into United's strength as Valencia is an expert at pinning back full-backs and Carrick's ability to read the game and intercept passes could prove vital in the match. Here's a chalkboard of Olsson's and Pedersen's passing from last week; Olsson got forward into the attack down the touchline and Pedersen often drifted toward the left as well in order to create.
* United must focus on getting all three points: This is more psychological and strategic than tactical, but United must come to Ewood Park with the mindset to win the match. If merely seek out a draw and lack aggression, Blackburn's desperation may carry them to a full three points. United need to attack from the get-go and attempt to put the match away early, just as they did in the return fixture. Mental mindset may prove to the be biggest factor in the match's outcome.
Odds: Blackburn Rovers, 4/1, Draw 12/5, Manchester United 8/11
Prediction: Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Manchester United