MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 08: The Manchester United and Chelsea players walk out prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on May 8, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Manchester United return to Premier League action on Sunday for a clash with perennial title-contending rival Chelsea FC at Old Trafford. The last seven Premier League titles have been shared between these two giants of England. The two sides are very familiar with each after battling five times last season -- once in the Community Shield, twice in league play, and twice during the quarter-final of the Champions League. The Reds got the better of the Blues during the past campaign by winning the two-legged Champions League tie and also the title-decider at Old Trafford in the Spring. The current season is young but three points for either club could be a big statement for 2011-12 Premier League title chase.
United are coming off a midweek match from when they earned a 1-1 away draw with SL Benfica to open their 2011-12 UEFA Champions League campaign. In league play, the Reds are off to a cracking start after obtaining the maximum 12 points after four matches -- in which they have scored 18 goals, more than any other team in Premier League history. Their games versus Arsenal FC and Tottenham Hotspur were anticipated to be difficult early season tests. However, United demolished the north London sides, both of whom were in turmoil at the end of the summer transfer window, by a combined score of 11-3. Sunday's upcoming clash with Chelsea should provide a sterner test.
Injury wise, the squad came away from the Benfica tie unscathed. Rio Ferdinand was left back at home midweek so that he could be rested for Sunday. Captain Nemanja Vidic continues to be out due to a calf injury. Danny Welbeck has returned to training after suffering a hamstring injury versus Arsenal, but he is not expected to be available for this tie. Tom Cleverley is out with ligament damage in his ankle after a rash challenge from Bolton's Kevin Davies this past weekend. Rafael continues to recover from shoulder injury.
The Blues are coming off a midweek 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in Champions League action. In league, they currently sit third in the table as they have only dropped two points this season after four matches. Once again, Chelsea has changed managers as Andre Villas-Boas takes over after his success last season with FC Porto.
The 33-year-old Chelsea boss does have a few injury concerns coming into this match. Didier Drogba is unavailable still after his horrific collision with Norwich City goalkeeper John Ruddy resulted in a concussion. Midfielder Michael Essien is out with a long-term knee injury. Backup goalkeeper Henrique Hilario has a knock on his hip while third-string goalkeeper Ross Turnbull has a calf injury -- it is not certain whether either is available for Sunday.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson played his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape in Lisbon but he is expected to revert back to a 4-4-1-1 shape for Sunday's match. After the Benfica game, Ferguson made it clear that David De Gea is his No 1 and that he would be in goal versus Chelsea. Ferdinand should get the start at center-back and his partner could be either Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, or Chris Smalling. Patrice Evra will be the left-back and on the opposite side, either Smalling, Jones, or Fabio could be deployed. Anderson is certain to start in the center of the park and the most likely candidates to partner him are Michael Carrick or Ryan Giggs. In the attack, the in-form Ashley Young is probable on the left flank while Nani is is likely on the right flank. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) is expected along with Wayne Rooney in a withdrawn role.
Villas-Boas likely deploys his side in a 4-3-3 shape, the same that he used this past week versus Bayer Leverkusen and Sunderland. In goal, Peter Cech has returned from injury and will be between the posts on Sunday. At center-back, captain John Terry will likely start and his partner will be either Branislav Ivanovic or David Luiz. Ashley Cole is the left-back and either Ivanovic or Jose Bosingwa will be the right-back. John Mikel Obi is the likely holding midfielder but Raul Meireles is a possibility as well. Vice-captain Frank Lampard and Ramires are likely to be in the center of the park as well. Fernando Torres is most likely to lead the attacking line but Nicolas Anelka is an option as well. Juan Mata will likely drift in from the left flank and operate in the space between the lines. Either Daniel Sturridge or Anelka are likely as the wide right forward.
* United's right-side vs Chelsea's left-side: United generally attack more down the right-side as opposed to the left-side or through the middle. Against Benfica, 45% of their attack was on the right-side, 20% through the middle, and 35% on the left. Against Bolton last weekend, 37% of their attack was on the right-side, 30% through the middle, and 33% on the left. As for Chelsea, they generally look to attack down their left-side. Against Bayer Leverkusen, 46% of their attack was down the left-side, 24% through the middle, and 30% down the right. Against Sunderland last weekend, 39% of their attack was down the left-side, 28% through the middle, and 34% down the right.
Quite obviously, this means both teams like to work down the same side of the pitch and that will be an important battle-ground for this match. Chelsea like to work through Mata, Lampard, and Cole on the left and it will be important for Nani, or whoever United's right winger is, to track back and defend. United's right-back will need to communicate effectively with Ferdinand and the holding midfielder so that they can pass off Mata when he drifts in towards the middle. As for United's attack, Cole struggled last season when up against Antonio Valencia -- this individual match-up was key to United's success. However, the Ecudorian winger is not expected to start. If Nani does, his success against Cole will be vitally important to United's attack. The United right-back should also have space to get forward into when Mata drifts inside.
* Chelsea's right-back: It seems almost by intention that in the past few seasons, the one Chelsea player that United has continually allowed space for is the Blues' right-back. United's wide left player in recent seasons tends to play narrowly and it is often the wide right player that stays closer to the touchline and stretches the opposition's defense. Ivanovic and Bosignwa offer different virtues for Chelsea -- the former is the better defender while the latter is more adventurous in getting forward. However, they have shared one trait in their opportunities versus United at right-back -- neither have been able to whip in dangerous crosses on a consistent basis. Because they have been the ones afforded the most time and space on the ball, their failure in delivery has been costly for Chelsea over the past few seasons. It will not be surprising if Ferguson instructs his side to again to leave space for Chelsea's right-back -- will they be able to capitalize on Sunday?
* Between the lines: Rooney was a key player in these match-ups last season as he continually tormented Chelsea by operating in the space between their defense and midfield lines. While Mikel is generally a solid holding-midfielder, Rooney's intelligent movement has allowed him to slip Mikel and to pull the strings for United in their attacking third. Once again, this will be a big concern for Chelsea. If David Luiz starts, perhaps his mobility would allow him to move higher up the pitch and assist Mikel. However, this might expose Terry's lack of pace in behind if he is forced to then deal with Chicharito in a one-on-one situation.
Last season, Chelsea didn't have a player that roamed in the space between United's defense and midfield. Teams that did this to United last season (e.g. Arsenal at the Emirates, Barcelona) caused them problems because United often get into the habit of defending with two flat bands of four. Lampard is a box-to-box type of player and he typically gets forward only for late-arriving runs at the the top of the box. Chelsea now have Mata and he prefers to operate in this space between the lines. Carrick's positional awareness is a strength and if he starts, he will need to monitor Mata's movement. When out of possession, United must be smart in tracking the movements of the skillful Spaniard and be comfortable in passing him off as he drifts between different zones.
* Carrick vs Lampard: This is under the assumption that Carrick partners Anderson in the middle, and not Giggs. Last season, especially in Champions League play, Carrick was brilliant versus Chelsea. Much of this had to do with Lampard giving him much too much time and space on the ball. From his deep-lying position, Carrick was free to spray the ball around and dictate the matches. If Carrick starts, he likely will be deployed slightly deeper than Anderson and slightly to his right as well in the center of the park. This would match up Carrick once again with Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder will need to be more aggressive in moving higher up the pitch to close down Carrick. He cannot afford to give Carrick the continual 10-15 yards of space that he did last season.
When Chelsea are in possession and are attacking, United will have sort out the situations when Mata comes in towards the middle and Carrick picks him up. This leaves the dangerous situation when Lampard makes his late-arriving runs at the top of the box. As a result, Lampard may get some space to shoot from distance or be free to finish any cut backs from the attackers near the penalty spot.
Odds: Manchester United 8/11, Draw 13/5, Chelsea 7/2
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea
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