LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 18: Danny Welbeck of Manchester United has his shot on goal blocked by Danny Gabbidon of QPR during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United at Loftus Road on December 18, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Manchester United return to Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon for a Premier League encounter with Queens Park Rangers. This will be the first league visit to the 'Theatre of Dreams' for the West London club since 1995. On that day, goals from Andy Cole and a young Ryan Giggs helped United prevail by a 2-1 scoreline. QPR did visit again though in 2008 for a Carling Cup clash and it was a Carlos Tevez penalty that represented the lone goal in that match. During the reverse fixture in December, United comfortably won 2-0 at Loftus Road after Wayne Rooney bagged the opening goal just 52 seconds into the match. Michael Carrick then added a second in the 52nd minute.
Form Guide: Sir Alex Ferguson's side enter this match top of the league table with 76 points from 31 matches. Kickoff at Old Trafford is two-and-a-half hours prior to Manchester City's clash with Arsenal at the Emirates. Therefore, United will have the opportunity to extend their lead to 8 points before Mario Balotelli even has the opportunity to enrage his teammates by attempting to take free-kicks that he shouldn't. The Red Devils are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches with the only points being dropped being away to Chelsea. United's most recent match occurred on Monday when they defeated Blackburn Rovers 0-2 at Ewood Park.
Team News: Nani has returned to training and thus, he is available for selection on Sunday. Anderson, Michael Owen, and Anders Lindegaard continue to be out but each is expected to return at some point during the run-in. Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic are unavailable due to a season-ending illness and injury, respectively. (Manchester United Team News Report)
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Form Guide: QPR, like many of United's recent and upcoming opponents, are in a fight for Premier League survival. They are currently joint second bottom on points with Blackburn and Wigan Athletic, however, they are ahead of both in the table due to a more favorable goal differential. Mark Hughes' men have shown good form as of late at home as they've recently defeated Arsenal and LOLiverpool while drawing with Everton as well. However, their away form has been extremely poor as QPR have only earned two points from their last nine away fixtures.
Team News: Dijibril Cisse is unavailable for this match due to suspension as are Alejandro Faurlin and Kieron Dyer due to season-ending injuries. The availability of Armand Traore, DJ Campbell, Heidar Helguson, and Clint Hill are all in question due to various knocks.
United: Some squad rotation is likely in the upcoming week because United will play 3 matches in a 8-day span. David de Gea will probably be in goal for all of those matches, health permitting of course, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans is very much the first-choice partnership at center-back right now. If Ferdinand is rested at any point, or if his chronic back issue flares up, then Chris Smalling is the most likely deputy. Patrice Evra is the automatic choice for manager Sir Alex Ferguson at left-back while Rafael is the likely choice over Smalling and Phil Jones at right-back for this match. Michael Carrick is the stalwart in the center of the park and he'll probably be partnered by either Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. The in-form Antonio Valencia seems the obvious choice on the right-flank while Ashley Young in anticipated to be selected on the left-flank over the likes of Giggs, Nani, Park Ji-sung, and Danny Welbeck. Wayne Rooney will start and he'll either be partnered by Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
QPR: In the four matches that Cisse has missed due to suspension during his time at QPR, manager Mark Hughes has elected to use a 4-2-3-1ish shape over his favored 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. Patrick Kenny is the No. 1 and any two of Hill, Anton Ferdinand, or Nedum Onuoha is probable to be selected at center-back. If Traore isn't fit, then Taye Taiwo is the obvious choice at left-back. If Hill doesn't start at center-back, Luke Young likely starts at right-back while Onuoha would slide inside to center-back.
Expect to see Shaun Derry and Samba Diakite as deep central-midfielders and Joey Barton advanced from them. Adel Taarabt is likely to drift in from the left flank while either Jamie Mackie or Shaun Wright-Philips is probable on the right-flank. Bobby Zamora is expected to be the lone striker.
* United will control possession, but can they be incisive?: I saw a statistic this week that said prior to Scholes coming out of retirement, United were 6th in the Premier League in pass completion percentage. Since his return, they are first (*) in that time. That only further exemplifies United's recent shift to a (more than usual) possession-based approach and a result, they have controlled most of their domestic matches. However, they lack punch at times in the attacking third. Intelligent movement and quick passing, in combination with Valencia's unplayable directness, have created chances but they haven't been consistently put away. Whether it's Welbeck or Chicharito that starts alongside Rooney, that player will need to be more clinical in front of goal versus QPR than they have been recently -- especially the latter since that's main reason he's on the pitch. QPR only had 32% of the possession last weekend versus Arsenal, but they still emerged victorious. Can United punch their way through with the possession that they will have?
(*) I can't remember where I read this so I can't properly credit the source. If it was you and you're reading this, sorries!
* Contain QPR's wide players: Michael Cox wrote a column for the Guardian this week and in it, he discussed QPR's 4-2-3-1 shape last weekend versus Arsenal. This is a shape that Hughes has only deployed his side in -- rather than his preferred 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 -- when Cisse has been unavailable due to recent and frequent suspensions. Perhaps the player that has benefited most from this system change is Taarabt. The QPR attacker scored an impressive 19 goals last season in the Championship but his first goal this season finally came last weekend. The 4-2-3-1 system allows him to play slightly higher up the pitch and this allows him more attacking freedom -- particularly when he drifts inside in order to involve himself closer to goal. United's right-back -- likely Rafael -- will need to be wary of his tricky counterpart and he'll also need to be alert enough to pass off Taarabt when necessary. On the other side of the pitch, Mackie is simpler and more direct but he troubled Evra quite a bit during the reverse fixture. United will need to contain QPR's wide players if they want to limit their opponent's chances on Sunday.
* Wear QPR shirts and 'BOO' Joey Barton: It makes him sad. Then follow that up with chants of Nietzsche being rubbish -- do that, and Old Trafford will be in his head.
KO: 1:30pm BST, 8:30am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Lee Mason
Odds: Manchester United 1/5, Draw 13/2, QPR 18/1
TBB prediction: Manchester United 3-1 QPR