MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 31: Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Jason Lowe of Blackburn Rovers battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on December 31, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Manchester United owe Blackburn Rovers one. In what has probably been the most shocking result this season for the Red Devils, Steve Kean's side came to Old Trafford on New Year's Eve and handed the home side a defeat on Sir Alex Ferguson's 70th birthday. Yakubu's two goals put his side up 2-0 before Dimitar Berbatov leveled the match with his own brace. However, Grant Hanley scored the winner late and Rovers had themselves a famous 3-2 victory. Revenge will not be the only thing on the minds of United on Monday night, the more important manner of earning three points during this title race with Manchester City will be as well.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the league table with 73 points from 30 matches. City will have the chance to go level on points if they defeat Sunderland at home this weekend-- although United would have a game in hand prior to their encounter on Monday. Fergie's side has been dumped out of two continental and two domestic cup competitions so the chase for league title number 20 is the only aim right now. United's league form has been generally solid as they are unbeaten in their past 10 matches with the only points dropped occurring at Stamford Bridge during a thrilling 3-3 draw with Chelsea. The most recent match was last weekend when they squeaked by Fulham 1-0 at Old Trafford.
Team News: Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Anderson, Michael Owen, Nani and Anders Lindegaard are all out for this match but the latter four are expected to return at some point during the run in. (Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: Blackburn are in a fight for Premier League survival as they currently sit (at the time of this publishing) 16th in the table with 28 points from 30 matches -- 3 points clear of the relegation zone. Rovers did earn 7 points recently from 3 matches prior to their 1-2 defeat by relegation rival Bolton Wanderers last weekend.
Team News: Gael Givet is '50/50' according to Kean because of a hamstring issue. Jason Lowe has a broken hand but he's still expected to feature. Michel Salgado and Vince Grella have been ruled out. (Blackburn Team News Report)
United: This doesn't occur very often with Fergie, but most of his selection choices appear obvious for Monday. The only dilemmas may be whether to start Rafael, Phil Jones, or Chris Smalling at right-back and whether to start Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) up front. Although, the United boss could spring a slight surprise as he did last week when Ryan Giggs was given a start while Paul Scholes was rested.
David de Gea will be between the posts at Ewood Park while the pairing of Jonny Evans (outstanding defender!) and Rio Ferdinand is expected at center-back. If the latter's chronic back problem is an issue, Chris Smalling will likely deputise. Patrice Evra is Fergie's automatic choice at left-back. I have sneaking suspicion that Jones will start versus his old club at right-back. In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are anticipated and they will probably be flanked by Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. Welbeck is in contention to start on the left flank as well. Up front, Wayne Rooney will feature in a likely withdrawn role.
Rovers: Kean has chosen the same starting XI and in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape for Blackburn's past three matches. However, it's possible that he switches to a 4-1-4-1 shape so that he can provide his side a bit more structure while battling the league leaders. Expect to see No. 1 Paul Robinson as the Rovers goalkeeper with Grant Hanley and Scott Dann ahead of him as the center-back duo. Lowe is the first-choice right-back but if that broken hand causes him to miss out on the match, then Bradley Orr is the likely deputy. Martin Olsson is the first-choice left-back.
Steven Nzonzi and Morten Gamst Pedersen are anticipated in the center of the park and if Kean elects to deploy his side in a 4-1-4-1 shape, then Radosav Petrovic may also feature there as a third central-midfielder. Mauro Formica is probable as a narrow right-sided midfielder while either Junior Hoilett or Marcus Olsson is expected on the left flank -- Hoilett in a 4-1-4-1 or Olsson in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. Yakubu will be the center-forward and if a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system is used, expect to see Hoilett withdrawn from him.
* Contain Blackburn's left side of attack: Kean's side tends to play with a lopsided shape as the left side plays higher and with more width in comparison to the right. Martin Olsson likes to motor forward in support of the left-sided attacker -- either Marcus Olsson or Hoilett -- while Pedersen tends to drift toward the left touchline from his central-midfield position. All of these players have pace and skill and as a result, this part of the pitch tends to be Blackburn's creative outlet. Hoilett's preferred foot is his right so he'll cut in and shoot but he also does well to stay wide when he receives. United's right-back on Monday -- whether that is Jones, Rafael, or Smalling -- will be a key player but he'll likely be supported by Valencia as the winger does well to track back. The Ecuadorian could also benefit his side by pinning back Martin Olsson.
* United must patiently breakdown Blackburn: United moved the ball around well last weekend in the back against a deep-defending Fulham side. However, when the ball arrived to Giggs, it was a common occurrence for him to impatiently and inaccurately play balls in behind the opposition and this is where United's attack often broke down. It could be reasonably anticipated that Scholes will start at Ewood Park and the maestro would be a welcomed return. Once again, United will need to patiently build attacks from the back as Blackburn will likely concede possession in this match -- the 42.2% average possession by Kean's side is second bottom in the Prem. Scholes can set the tempo by patiently swinging the ball from side-to-side while probing for an opening. However, his incisive long diagonal balls to the wingers can also open things up and switch the point of attack. If he's having his way, then the home side may be forced to come out and close him down. This possible scenario could open up gaps in attack for United's front four. Scholesy may be the key tactical figure in this match if he features.
* Be wary of Blackburn's set-piece threat: Blackburn are the joint leaders -- along with United -- with 17 goals scored from set-pieces this season. Pedersen's left-foot is a 'can-opener' on set-pieces and he often can send the ball wherever and however (trajectory, pace, & bend) he desires. Fortunately for United, his favorite target, Christopher Samba, left for the frozen tundra of Russia (*) in the January transfer window. However, the likes of NZonzi and Yakubu are still an aerial threat so the marking from Evans and Ferdinand will be key on set-pieces. This is also another reason why I have a hunch that Jones will be selected over Rafa -- because the Englishman provides more aerial security in comparison to the Brazilian.
(*) That's probably the biggest stereotype ever. Sorry Mother Russia (**).
(**) I'm not Russian so I don't know if I have the right to call it Mother Russia. I like vodka though (***).
(***) Whoops, another stereotype. I should just end this preview now.
KO: 8:00pm BST, 3:00pm EST | Ewood Park
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.A.)
Referee: Howard Webb
Odds: Blackburn 8/1, Draw 19/5, Manchester United 2/5
TBB Prediction: Blackburn 1-3 Manchester United