LONDON ENGLAND - JANUARY 16: Luis Nani of Manchester United is challenged by Gareth Bale and Benoit Assou-Ekotto of Spurs during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane on January 16 2011 in London England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
On Monday night, Tottenham Hotspur travel north to Old Trafford for their Premier League opener after their match last weekend versus Everton FC was cancelled due to the rioting in London. For Manchester United, this will be their season debut at the Theatre of Dreams. These two sides met twice in the past campaign, both in league ties. United won the first match 2-0 at Old Trafford while the return fixture ended in a scoreless draw at White Hart Lane. Spurs are certainly a formidable side but the Reds can draw solace in their recent home record versus their upcoming league foe: it has been since 1989 when the North London side last tasted victory on United's ground.
The champions of England began their title defense last weekend at the Hawthorns in a 1-2 victory over West Bromwich Albion. After a fast and fluid start, the peak of which being Wayne Rooney opening up his scoring account in the 13th minute of the young season, United failed to be clinical with their finishing and were punished for it when Shane Long equalised in the 37th minute for the Baggies. In a nervy 2nd half, Ashley Young provided a moment of inspiration during the 81st minute when he surged into the box and played a ball in that was deflected for an own goal winner. It was a valuable three points away from home - something that title-contending rivals Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC failed to do during the opening weekend of Premier League action.
United's victory came at a price though. Both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were forced to leave the match due to injury - the former will miss four to five weeks with a calf muscle injury while the latter will miss another week or two with a hamstring strain. Rafael will miss around 10 weeks of action due a shoulder injury suffered in training, one that required surgery during the past week. Darren Fletcher is unavailable as well but all indications are that he is recovering well from a virus after he went the full 90 minutes in a Reserves match this week. Antonio Valencia was expected to feature in that same Reserves match while he recovers from an ankle injury suffered during Copa America, however, his progress has been pushed back a week. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez has returned to training after suffering from the effects of a concussion but he is still unavailable for selection. (Full injury summary)
After a glorious run to the UEFA Champions League quarter-final last season, Spurs finished 5th in league and failed to re-qualify for Europe's grandest competition. Their spot in the table was still enough to qualify for Europa League, a competition which they began on Thursday with a 5-0 victory over Scottish side Hearts. Competition in England appears stiffer this season for a top four Champions League qualifying spot after Liverpool FC and Manchester City brought in more reinforcements. Therefore, a top four finish for Spurs appears to be an arduous task at the current moment, especially when considering that Luka Modric may leave by month's end.
Ahead of Monday's tie, the North London side have numerous injury concerns. Modric sat out versus Hearts due to a reported groin injury but the midfield maestro is expected to play on Monday. Sandro, Ledley King, Alan Hutton, Danny Rose, Jermaine Jenas, Wilson Palacios, William Gallas, and Steven Pienaar have all been ruled out. Both Peter Crouch and Tom Huddlestone are questionable to play.
While addressing the media on Friday, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson indicated that he is not afraid to go with youth for this upcoming tie. In defense, he stated goalkeeper David de Gea will make his first Old Trafford start despite a shaky start to his United career. The experienced Patrice Evra will return from injury to play left-back while Chris Smalling will be the right-back. The center-back tandem will be Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. In central midfield, both Anderson and Tom Cleverley were terrific last week versus West Brom and each are strong candidates to start versus Spurs. If he is fully fit, Michael Carrick is also a strong candidate to play in the center so that he can help shield a young back four in defense. Out wide, Ashley Young is likely to featured on the left while Nani is probable on the right. Park Ji-sung may also be considered for either wide spot. Up front, Rooney is certain to start and his partner is likely to be either Danny Welbeck or Dimitar Berbatov.
For Spurs, newly acquired Brad Friedel likely gets the nod in goal over Gomes. Expect to see Younes Kaboul and Michael Dawson as the center-back pairing. Vedran Corluka is the probable right-back with Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back. Any two of Modric, Huddlestone, or Niko Kranjcar, are likely start in the center of the park -- perhaps depending on Modric's health or any possible transfer prior to Monday. Aaron Lennon will be on the right flank while Gareth Bale will be on the left. The lead striker will be either Jermaine Defoe or Roman Pavlyuchenko and behind them in the hole will be Rafael Van der Vaart.
* Chris Smalling vs Gareth Bale: Despite showing well in the preseason at right-back, especially during the FA Community Shield versus Manchester City, it is somewhat surprising that Ferguson will go with Smalling at right-back over Fabio versus Spurs. Smalling provided terrific cover last season at center-back when Ferdinand went down to injury and there aren't many sides in the world where the youngster would not be first-choice in central defense. However, at right-back, and especially versus the pacy Bale, Smalling's pace may be a concern. It is not hard to envision the Welshman torching the Englishman down the touchline and creating constant goal-scoring chances for his side. Perhaps Fabio, who started the Champions League final in May and who has pace in spades, would have been the better selection choice. Or perhaps Smalling can be physical with Bale, something the dangerous Spurs' attacker struggled with at times last season. This is certainly a matchup to watch.
* Rafael Van der Vaart operating between the lines: Spurs first-choice lineup last season included Van der Vaart operating in the space between the lines in a 4-4-1-1 shape. The Dutchman often anticipated the knock-downs of target-man Crouch, especially in Europe, and devastated sides with his finishing ability. In all competitions last season, the incisive playmaker contributed 15 goals and 9 assists for Spurs. If United play in a 4-4-2 sort of shape, especially without Carrick, they will be vulnerable to Van der Vaart's movement between the lines. A flat band of four, in both defense and midfield, is incredibly vulnerable to sides that have players smartly operating in the open space between the lines. Because of his intelligent positioning, Carrick may be the right choice to start this match - both for combatting Van der Vaart in this space and also for dictating tempo while calmly shielding a young defense. If Carrick does not start, Anderson may be forced to operate in a deeper area of the pitch - where he has been unconvincing at times.
* Tempo: In both matches last season, it was the brilliant Modric that often dictated the tempo of the match from the center of the park for Spurs. If Anderson and Cleverley start, it will be certainly interesting to see how they compete. One noticeable difference thus far for United in attack, during the latter two preseason matches (versus Barcelona and City) and in the opener, has been the increased tempo in attack. The front four of Rooney, Welbeck, Nani, and Young has been incredibly fast and fluid, both in their movement and one-touch passing. This has been well supplemented by the accurate and incisive distribution from both Anderson and Cleverley from the center of the park. With the injuries to the Spurs' defense and their holding midfielders, this speed and unpredictability in attack could prove troublesome. Whichever side can dictate tempo will likely influence this match more.
Odds: Manchester United 8/13, Draw 11/4, Tottenham 9/2
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Tottenham
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