MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battles with Leon Barnett of Norwich City during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Norwich City at Old Trafford on October 1, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
A tough Premier League test awaits Manchester United as they are set to be at Carrow Road on Sunday to face Norwich City. During the reverse fixture in October at Old Trafford, Anderson and Danny Welbeck provided the goals that helped United to a 2-0 defeat of the Canaries. This tricky tie comes at the same weekend when title-contending rival Manchester City is expected to take the full three points at home when they battle Blackburn Rovers. United could potentially see themselves entering their match on Sunday five point points shy of the leaders because City's match is on Saturday.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting 2nd in the league table with 58 points through 25 matches -- two points shy of leaders City. The Red Devils are unbeaten in their last five league ties -- with four of those being victories -- and they are also coming off a Europa League two-legged knockout stage defeat of Dutch side Ajax. The most recent leg occurred at the midweek when United lost 2-1 at home. However, they earned passage to the next round because of their 3-2 aggregate advantage.
Team News: The one bit of injury news from the most recent Ajax contest is that midfielder Tom Cleverley received a knock. Although the knock has made him a doubt for this Norwich match, it is not thought to be serious. Wayne Rooney was unavailable at the midweek due to illness but he's expected to feature at Carrow Road. Anderson has recently returned to first-team training and he's likely available as well. Darren Fletcher, Nemanja Vidic, Anders Lindegaard, Antonio Valencia, and Michael Owen are all out.
Form Guide: Norwich impressively sit 8th in the table with 35 points from 25 points -- relegation appears extremely unlikley for the recently promoted club. The Canaries have been in very good form as of late as they've only suffered one defeat in their past seven league matches. However, their most recent match saw them defeated by Leicester City in a FA Cup tie. Norwich have now been eliminated in both domestic cup competitions, just as United.
Team News: Zak Whitbread has recovered from a recent knock and he's expected to be available for selection. Marc Tierney, Declan Rudd, and Daniel Ayala are all doubts for the match.
United: The recently impressive David de Gea is expected between the posts while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are likely as the center-back tandem. If Ferdinand's chronic back issue flares up, then either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones would deputise. After being rested against Ajax, Patrice Evra is expected to return to the side at left-back while wearing the captain's armband. At right-back, Rafael has shown good form as of late but manager Sir Alex Ferguson may opt for more size against a physical Norwich side. Thus, either Jones or Smalling may be tasked at right-back.
Michael Carrick was another player rested against Ajax and he is expected to return in this match. His midfield partner is likely to be either Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. If a midfield trio is used, any of Giggs, Park Ji-sung, or Anderson are possible as the most advanced midfielder.
In attack, Rooney is an automatic selection if fit and if Fergie wants to use a two-striker system, then either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) is likely. Out wide, any two of Park, Nani, and Ashley Young is probable to be selected. Welbeck could also be in contention to feature on the flank.
Norwich: For tactical nerds like myself, Norwich manager Paul Lambert has been fascinating to follow this season. He's a pragmatic manager whose team's shape fluctuates from match-to-match -- and often during a match. His default formation appears to be a narrow 4-4-2 diamond-ish shape but he's also used a 3-5-2, a standard 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, and 4-5-1. This can lead to a variety of scenarios for a lineup projection. However, I'll keep it simple and anticipate that Lambert starts with his recent 4-4-2 diamond.
John Ruddy is the No. 1 while Whitbread, Elliott Ward, Kyle Naughton, and Russell Martin appear most likely as the back four. The latter two are the probable full-backs but if Adam Drury is selected at left-back, then Martin could slide inside to center-back.
In the midfield diamond, David Fox is first-choice in a holding role but Bradley Johnson is in contention as well. In the shuttling roles, Anthony Pilkington and Andrew Surman are expected but Andrew Crofts is possible as well. Either Wes Hoolahan or Elliott Bennett is expected as the central-attacking-midfielder.
If a two striker system is used, then any two of Grant Holt, Simeon Jackson, and Steve Morrison is expected. Morrison has started the most league games between the three but Holt and Jackson have been the preferred choices as of late.
* Dealing against Norwich's aerial threat: Despite playing with such a narrow shape, Norwich does well to swing the ball out to send in crosses -- and they do this very effectively. No other side in the Premier League has scored more goals from both crosses and headers this season. Holt, Morrison, and Barnett are all threats from open-play while Ward, Whitbread, and Martin can be threats from set-pieces. Fox often makes run from deep to send in crosses (1.4 successful crosses/game) while Pilkington shuttles out wide to do the same (1.4 successful crosses/game).
United have been vulnerable as of late on set-pieces. de Gea needs to command his box well -- or at least be decisive in delegating clearances to his defenders. As mentioned previously, it's possible that Smalling or Jones gets the start at right-back so that more height is provided against set-pieces and against crosses at the far-post in open-play. United miss Vidic badly (75% aerial duels won) -- especially in this regard -- but Ferdinand (64% aerial duels won) and Evans (68%) can hopefully cope well. Smalling is solid in the air as well (71% aerial duels won) and Jones is better than his statistics indicate (54%). As for the latter, he's been deployed higher up the pitch at times and midfield is an area where aerial duels tend to be more 50/50 in comparison to when deployed in defense. If he's deployed at right-back, he's should be considered a strength for aerial duels.
* United need to move the ball quickly: Norwich is a side that is capable of pressing well with high-intensity. In their recent match versus Swansea City -- a side that does well with their possession-based football -- the Canaries disrupted their passing rhythm with effective pressing. It seems probable that Carrick and Scholes will start for United and they will have to provide calm when United tries to transition from defense to attack. Carrick can be prone to lapses when intensely pressed so he will need to be focused on swinging the ball out wide when the pressure comes -- Norwich's narrow shape should allow United's full-back to be a constant outlet. Also, Rooney will be a key man also because United may be reliant on him to link the midfield and attack. When Norwich press high up the pitch -- and this tactic often includes holding-midfielder Fox -- Wazza may find himself in acres of free space between the lines. United just need to find a way to get him the ball. If they do, this will be the weakness to Norwich's pressing scheme.
* Fergie must be quickly aware of Lambert's in-game adjustments: Lambert has versatile enough players to switch from a narrow 4-4-2 to a standard 4-4-2, a 4-3-1-2, 4-2-3-1, or 4-4-1-1 during a match without having to makes substitutions. More than most matches, Fergie will have to keenly aware of the subtle -- or perhaps not so subtle -- tactical tweaks that Lambert will make during a match. Fergie may want to use versatile players himself -- such as Park, Nani, Jones, Welbeck, Rooney -- so that he has the flexibility to make shape changes against any tactic that could potentially cause United trouble.
KO: 1:30pm GMT, 8:30am EST | Carrow Road
Live TV: none (U.K.), FOX Soccer Plus (U.S.), FOXSoccer2Go.com (internet)
Referee: Andre Marriner
Odds: Norwich City 11/2, Draw 3/1, Manchester United 8/15
TBB Prediction: Norwich City 1-2 Manchester United