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It's a quick turnaround for Manchester United as they're back in Premier League action on Wednesday night when they make the short trek to the DW Stadium to take on Wigan Athletic. United have a 100% record versus the Latics in the Premier League and during the reverse fixture in December, the leaders hammered Roberto Martinez's side by a 5-0 scoreline at Old Trafford. Park Ji-sung opened the scoring in the 8th minute while Dimitar Berbatov was the hat-trick hero. Antonio Valencia, marauding from his right-back position that day, also bagged a goal. It was an impressive win during a time when the injury situation at United was dire: this is perhaps best exemplified by Michael Carrick and Patrice Evra ending the match as the center-back pairing while youngster Zeki Fryers was opposite of Valencia at left-back.
Form Guide: The positive results keep on coming for United as they are unbeaten in their last 12 league ties -- this includes a current streak of 8 straight victories. The most recent match was on Sunday when they defeated Queens Park Rangers 2-0. The impressive form of the Red Devils, coinciding with Manchester City's dip in form, has resulted in the champions opening up an 8 point lead in the title race with only 6 matches remaining. There is still plenty of work to be done still but title number 20 is within clear sight.
Team News: Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard, and Anderson are unavailable for this match but each is still expected to return at some during the run-in. Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic continue to be out with a season-ending illness and injury, respectively. Rafael received a slight knock versus QPR but there's been no indication that he is unavailable for Wigan.
Form Guide: Wigan enter the match joint second bottom with QPR and Blackburn Rovers on points, however, they are in the relegation zone at the moment due to their inferior goal differential in comparison to both relegation rivals. The Latics are shining somewhat though as of late after suffering from defeat just twice in their last 9 league outings. It should really only be one defeat though because Martinez's men were robbed of at least a point last weekend versus Chelsea FC due to some dubious decisions from referee Mike Jones.
Team News: Striker Hugo Rodallega is unavailable due to a knee injury. Victor Moses sustained a knock versus Chelsea but he's expected to feature anyway.
United: Due to this being the 2nd game of a 3-match stretch during an 8-day span, squad rotation is probable. Sir Alex Ferguson could afford to rest a few key players as well due to the 8-point lead in the title race. The extent of it though is anybody's guess. David de Gea is the clear No. 1 and because he hardly had to do anything versus QPR, he's almost certainly to feature. Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra are likely to be included in the back four but if Rio Ferdinand is rested, Chris Smalling is probable to deputise. Smalling or Phil Jones are in contention to start at right-back as well if Rafael is rested.
In central-midfield, Michael Carrick is likely to start while Paul Scholes could be rested. Tom Cleverley and Ryan Giggs would be the most likely candidates to replace Scholesy. On the flanks, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have been first-choice as of late. However, if either or both are rested, any of Giggs, Park, or the recently returned Nani could be given a game. Up front, Wayne Rooney is expected and he'll likely be partnered by either Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Danny Welbeck. If Wazza is given a rest, then Dimitar Berbatov could be a surprise inclusion or even Young could play 'in the hole' behind a lead striker.
Wigan: Martinez had deployed the same starting XI in a 3-4-3 shape during Wigan's past four matches. Ali Al Habsi is the No. 1 while Gary Caldwell, Maynor Figueroa, and Antolin Alcaraz are the first-choice back three. In the center of the park, James McCarthy and James McArthur are the expected midfield duo and they'll probably be flanked by Jean Beausejour and Emmerson Boyce at the wing-back positions. Franco Di Santo is expected to the be fulcrum in attack and he could be supported by Victor Moses and Shaun Maloney. Jordi Gomez is a possibility as well in the front three while Mohamed Diame could be given a start in central-midfield.
Wigan are better at keeping the ball than United's most recent opponents. However, it's possible that the away side controls possession in this match and that home side decide to defend deep and minimize damage. Or, the opposite could happen since the Latics goal differential is well below their relegation rivals and because of this, they may decide ignore goal differential and have a go at United in hopes of a surprise result. For United, their starting Xi is a mystery for this tie so I'll focus the tactical keys on Wigan since it's a bit more predictable for them.
* Wigan's 3-4-3 system: When in possession, Wigan's shape is 3-4-3 -- the wing-backs push forward to provide the width in attack while the wide attackers tend to cut in and form a fluid front three. When out of possession, Wigan's shape resembles a 5-4-1 -- the wing-backs retreat back to form a back five while the wide attackers track back to form a band of four in front of the back five.
* The diagram above shows how Wigan transition from a 3-4-3 when in possession to a 5-4-1 when out of possession.
Martinez instructs his side to keep the ball on the carpet (their 7.9 aerial duels won per game is 19th in the Prem) as they generally attempt to patiently work the ball out of the back with calm distribution (Wigan are 8th in the league in possession). It is typical to see their three center-backs and deepest-lying midfielder be the players with the most touches on the ball in a match. When they do decide to break quickly, the ball is moved into space for the front three and they're supported by surging wing-backs. If the obvious break isn't there, they'll patiently ping the ball around looking for gaps to probe. Sometimes though, patience is lost as Wigan are prone to fire from deep (51% of their shots are from outside the box | 2nd highest proportion in the league). Their 13.7 shots per game is 10th in the league but their 30 goals scored is bottom of the league. It would be in United's best interest to encourage Wigan to shoot from deep.
One way that United could disrupt Wigan's defensive shape is to have their secondary striker stay deep. If this is Rooney, this will be natural. If this player continually drops deep into the midfield zone, then Wigan will be in a situation where they have 3 CB's occupying one striker. As a result of this, they'll deficient elsewhere on the pitch -- most likely in midfield where United could control the match due to a simple numerical advantage in the center of the park. If a CB steps out to track a deep-lying striker, then gaps will open up in Wigan's back line and they'll be vulnerable against midfield runners. Whoever United's secondary striker is, he should continually look to come deep into the midfield zone so that he can exploit the problems of Wigan's back three shape.
* Contain Wigan's key attackers -- Jean Beausejour and Victor Moses: The biggest individual keys for United will be to cut off the supply from left-wing-back Beausejour and for the containment of the dangerous Moses. If it's either Valencia or Park deployed as United's right-winger, then their ability to track back will be key. Beausejour impressively motors forward to attempt 10.1 crosses per match at a 28.7% success rate (over 25% is generally considered good). The Chilean also supplies 2.6 key passes (what Opta defines as chances created) per game. The tricky Moses drifts all across attack and his 2.4 successful dribbles per game (2nd in the entire Prem) and his 2.3 fouls won per game (3rd in the entire Prem) does decently well to exemplify the difficulties defenders have with him. Evra's positioning in this match will be important, and perhaps worrisome. If United can find a way to contain these Wigan players, then they'll likely succeed in nullifying the home side's attack.
KO: 7:45pm BST, 2:45pm, EST | DW Stadium
Live TV: none (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.), *available on MUTV after midnight
Referee: Phil Dowd
Odds: Wigan Athletic 15/2, Draw 15/4, Manchester United 4/11
TBB prediction: Wigan Athletic 0-2 Manchester United