MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Javier Hernandez of Manchester United competes with Florent Malouda of Chelsea during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on April 12, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
On late Sunday afternoon, Chelsea FC will visit Old Trafford to clash with Manchester United in a potential title-deciding tie. The two English giants are very familiar with each having already battled four times during the current season; winner's medals for United in the Community Shield, a Chelsea victory in a league match at Stamford Bridge, and a United triumph over a two-legged tie in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final. It was just over a year ago when Chelsea came to Old Trafford in a league clash and claimed victory, one that ultimately became the title-decider. No visitor has since been able to leave the Theatre of Dreams victorious.
Manchester United: After defeating Schalke 04 this past Wednesday by 6-1 aggregate to reach the Champions League final, United are on quite the high. However, focus must quickly shift to domestic ambitions as the Red Devil's recent lackluster form in league has allowed Chelsea back in the title race. A recent at Newcastle and a loss last week at the Emirates to Arsenal has seen United drop points in recent weeks. The club seeks a 19th league title, a record that would allow them to surpass bitter rival Liverpool FC.
United appear to have a relatively clean bill of health ahead of Sunday's match. Wayne Rooney sat out the Champions League match versus Schalke due to a tight hamstring, however, the United number ten is expected to be featured versus Chelsea. Patrice Evra suffered a slight knock on his thigh on Wednesday but the Frenchman should be fine as well. Darren Fletcher returned to action as a substitute versus the German side and he should be available as well on Sunday; although manager Sir Alex Ferguson stated that the Scotsman would only participate in a substitute's role as Fletcher continues in his quest to regain fitness. Both da Silva twins, Fabio and Rafael, have suffered knocks in recent matches, but there have been no indications that either is unavailable. Owen Hargreaves continues to be out due to long-term injuries.
Chelsea: Just over two months ago, albeit with a game in hand, United were 15 points clear of Chelsea. Since then, the London side have shown tremendous domestic form and the gap has closed to three points. The Blues have claimed 25 points out their last possible 27. Because United and Chelsea are currently tied on goal differential, a Chelsea victory on Sunday would see the visitors go top of the table with just two matches remaining on the season.
The Londoners appear to have a relatively clean bill of health as well. The only concerns appear to be to Jose Bosignwa's hamstring injury and Yuri Zhirkov's calf injury. Both are considered doubtful for the match.
Projecting Lineups: The decision by Fergie to rest so many recent first-team choices versus Schalke provides clues as to who United will play on Sunday. The Reds likely will play in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape, but a 4-3-3/4-5-1 is certainly possible. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, center-backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, and left-back Patrice Evra are almost certainties to start in defense. Right-back will be either John O'Shea, Fabio, or Rafael. Michael Carrick is nearly a lock to start as well and he may potentially be joined in the central midfield by either Ryan Giggs, Anderson, or Paul Scholes. As for the wide right player, expect to see either Antonio Valencia or Park Ji-sung. Out on the left flank, Park, Giggs, or Nani are the choices. If United do play in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape, Javier 'Chicharito' is the likely striker with Wayne Rooney in a withdrawn and playmaking role. If United elect to play in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape, expect to see Rooney lead the line in attack.
In recent matches, Chelsea has reverted back to a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 shape. The projections in defense and midfield are near certainties: Peter Cech in goal, David Luiz and John Terry as the center-back tandem, Ashley Cole at left-back, Branislav Ivanovic as the right-back, John Obi Mikel as the holding midfielder, and Michael Essien and Frank Lampard in the central midfield. It's not certain if Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti is the one actually choosing his attackers. As the fulcrum in attack, the choice is either Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres. Florent Malouda is likely to start in the attack on the left and the choices on the right are either Salomon Kalou, Nicolas Anelka, or possibly Drogba.
* Rooney vs Mikel: In the three recent matches between these two sides, Chelsea has really struggled to contain Rooney. The Blues played in either a flat 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 shape; they didn't have a deep-lying midfielder that played in the space that Rooney likes to roam into. The result was both time and space for Rooney to utilize his vision and range of passing against Chelsea. Mikel has returned to the starting lineup for Chelsea and his role is to sit deep in the midfield and provide cover for both the defenders and central midfielders. This provides two main benefits: (1) It frees up Essien, and especially Lampard, to get forward into the attack. (2) It allows the full-backs to bomb forward because they know they have Mikel to provide defensive cover. Rooney has done well to deal with holding midfielders in recent months. However, in last week's match at the Emirates, it was holding midfielder Alex Song that was arguably the tactical key to the match by limiting Rooney's influence. Mikel will look to replicate Song's accomplishment.
* United's wingers vs Chelsea's full-backs: In Chelsea's 4-3-3 shape, width needs to be provided by their full-backs. During the past few seasons, United have done well in nullifying this by having either Valencia or Fletcher pin-back Cole. The focus has appeared to be to dare Chelsea's right-back, whether that be Ivanovic, Bosignwa, or Paulo Farreira, to come forward into space provided and whip in crosses; this is something that has generally resulted in failure for Chelsea. Either Valencia or Park will likely be tasked to the right flank and both will need to utilize their defensive strengths to prevent Cole from getting forward into the attack. Once again, United may dare Ivanovic to get forward and see if he can provide consistency with his crosses.
* Carrick vs Lampard: In the most recent Champions League matches between these two sides, Carrick was tremendous. As just mentioned, Chelsea was a bit flat in their vertical shape. Because of this, Lampard was not able to close down the deep-lying Carrick and the United midfielder bossed both matches in the center of the pitch. With the addition of Mikel to the lineup, this should allow Lampard to get forward a bit more. Therefore, rather than consistently being 5-10 yards away from Carrick when he receives, Lampard should, in theory, be able to close down Carrick quicker.
Odds: Manchester United 13/10, Draw 9/4, Chelsea 21/10
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea
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