AUTHOR: – Doron
Title decider? Probably. A couple of months ago this scenario seemed unlikely with Chelsea off the pace and United fairly comfortably on route to a title. Chelsea though are the league’s form side and their incredible run of results means they’re now just three points behind United with three games remaining. The winner of Sunday’s game will be hot favourites for the title whilst a draw would suit United only.
This fixture comes with a warning. Thirteen months ago Chelsea came to Old Trafford one point behind United and left two points ahead of them – whilst United next travelled to Blackburn and dropped two further points there. This time round, United head into the game with a three point advantage over Chelsea but similarly, they find themselves again at Ewood Park next week. Ancelotti’s triumphant turnaround means Chelsea are now three months unbeaten in the league with 8 wins in their last 10 games. With Chelsea crashing out the other cups much earlier than they’d have hoped, Ancelotti’s job is said to be on the line, however with an increasingly injury-free squad he’s turned their league fortunes around and should he go on to win an unlikely title, he may have saved his job. When these two sides met on the 11th April, Chelsea were 11 points adrift of United yet now they could overtake the Reds. Chelsea though will be all too aware that a defeat coupled with an Arsenal win may well see them drop down into third place.
Trying to decide how Chelsea will set up is difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson said in his Friday press conference that they rotate their strikers and their system so regularly that it really is tough to predict. What’s obvious though is how key Lampard and Malouda have become in recent weeks. In their last five league games Malouda has scored 4 and Lampard has scored 3 goals – important considering in that same period the strikers have only contributed twice (unless Kalou is considered a striker – he’s also scored 3 in their last five games). The only ‘given’ is probably their back four of Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry and Cole. Last week against Spurs, Chelsea went back to a 4-3-3 with Ramires and Anelka missing out – Anelka hasn’t scored since the 22nd February for the Blues.
United and Chelsea have of course met four times already this season (United winning three of those meetings) with the most recent three games coming in the past two months. For the two meetings at Stamford Bridge Chelsea have played a 4-4-2 each time and won 2-1 in the league (albeit rather dubiously) and lost 1-0 in the Champions League with a similar set-up. However in the game at Old Trafford in the Champions League, Ancelotti changed his system – whether because Chelsea were away from home or because they needed a win but he went for a 4-3-3, the system had similarities to how Chelsea set up against United in the 2-1 victory last season. Incidentally, that 2-1 win was the last time United lost at home and Joe Cole’s goal that day was the last time United conceded in the first half of a game at Old Trafford in the league. As for Sunday, Ferguson said he expects Drogba to start and Torres probably will too given his good record against United, even if he only has 1 goal in 15 games for Chelsea.
As previously mentioned, only a couple of months ago, the aim for Chelsea would have been securing a top three finish. Their turnaround has been built on scoring goals rather than keeping them out. They’ve managed only 3 clean sheets in their last 9 league games, but have scored 20 over that same time period. They are of course not unbeaten over such a long time in all competitions – United beat them home and away at the start of April, that may play on the minds of both sets of players. This run makes Chelsea the most in-form side in the league with 16 points taken from a last 18 available. There away form is also the best at the moment – 14 points from the last six games is considerably better than most other teams – their last league defeat came at Wolves on the 5th January, over 4 months ago. Chelsea haven’t been easy to beat on the road, only two teams have lost fewer games and no one has conceded fewer goals (17) on enemy turf. Chelsea’s defence is in fact the best overall in the league – 28 conceded in 35 games. Meanwhile only Arsenal have outscored them away from home – Chelsea have score 29 in their 17 away games.
Chelsea haven’t got a single injury concern or player suspended – a big boost but also potentially a selection dilemma given the lack of form of some ‘key’ players whilst some of the ‘squad’ players are proving their worth. Should the off-colour Anelka start, it’ll be his 100th for Chelsea.
Chelsea’s record at Old Trafford isn’t bad. They’ve won 5 out of 18 meetings and managed to draw 7. Last season’s 2-1 win was their first in five years in the league. Whilst United edge the goals scored column, Chelsea impressively do average better than a goal a game on their visits north to Manchester. Chelsea will be looking to score the opening goal – they’re yet to lose a game in which they’ve opened the scoring.
Enough on Chelsea…onto United and my predicted line up:
United are fortunate that injury problem have subsided at this key time of the season. Owen Hargreaves remains the only certain absentee as Paul Scholes returns from suspension and Wayne Rooney returns from a minor hamstring concern. Anders Lindegaard will also be amongst the squad after a couple of months out, although Fabio Da Silva’s condition is unclear – he missed the win over Schalke during the week because of a knock.
I’ve picked the 4-4-1-1 formation that failed at Arsenal last weekend but worked twice against Chelsea recently in the Champions League. In front of Edwin the back four should pick itself with Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra virtually guaranteed to start. At right back there may be some debate though. Rafael limped off against Schalke but is available whilst his brother Fabio we can presume is available too. O’Shea though I think will get the nod, Fergie has said before how he likes the fact that John can match up to Chelsea’s physicality and height.
There are big decisions to make in the midfield for Fergie. Whilst I’ve chosen Valencia and Park to start on the wings (the pairing who started away at Chelsea in the Champions League), the boss may fancy Park on the right with Nani on the left – the combination for the second leg of the Champions League tie against the Blues. Nani had Ivanovic on the back foot all of that game but similarly Valencia has had a lot of success against Cole. Potentially they could both start but with Chelsea generally fielding inside wingers, Park’s selection is seemingly key. Carrick and Giggs were both rested midweek and Giggs was ill last weekend so they should start in the centre although with Anderson and Gibson both stepping up midweek they may have forced an inclusion. Scholes is of course available again but his selection would probably prompt a 4-5-1 rather than have a two man central midfield pairing. Up front, Rooney and Chicharito are surely likely to start together after neither played a part in the 4-1 win over FC Schalke.
United remain top with a lead of 3 points now. Last weekend they lost 1-0 at Arsenal in a below-par showing that rejuvenated Arsenal’s hope in a late title push. This weekend, Arsenal are at Stoke on the Sunday before United host Chelsea.
Recent form shows United 3rd in the form league with 13 points taken from a possible 18 in the last six games. At home, United have been almost unstoppable, with 16 games won out of 17. Their home record is the best in the league – they are the highest scorers with 43 goals and have the tightest defence with only 9 conceded.
In Dimitar Berbatov United have the league’s top goalscorer (21 goals) as well as the joint 6th and 8th top scorers (Chicharito with 12 and Rooney with 10), whilst Nani is the league’s top assister (18 assists; Rooney is joint 4th with 11). It’s now over a year since an opposition player has scored a first half goal in the league at Old Trafford – 13 months to be precise and the goal came in this very fixture last year. In the last 15 years, Chelsea have only managed one clean sheet at United. There are a couple of things that may go in United’s favour – no side averages more points per game in the month of May in the Premier League that the Reds (2.04), and Howard Webb is the referee – United have won the last seven league games he’s officiated at Old Trafford. Should John O’Shea start, it’ll be his 300th for the club.
Chelsea are in a rich vein of form right now and this match up pitches the tightest away defence against the tightest home defence. Old Trafford has been a fortress for United and knowing that a win would pretty much seal a record 19th league title, I can’t see a home defeat. I do though think Chelsea won’t go away empty handed and I can see goals in the game. Therefore I predict a 2-2 draw – a result that would suit United much more than it would Chelsea.
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As is now common practice, it would be wrong not to include this video in a preview for a Chelsea game:
AUTHOR: – Doron