United can ensure they end 2011 at the top of the table with a draw or win over Blackburn. The fixture marks the halfway point in the season and so far United are on course for a record haul of points. Injuries are tearing into United’s squad again and Blackburn may fancy getting at the United defence. Blackburn themselves are in a relegation battle, their season has been riddled by off-the-pitch protests, conspiracy theories and grumblings.
After some decent summer business, Blackburn’s squad looked ok, certainly it appears better than some other squads on paper – a good mix of experienced Premier League players and exciting youngsters. However, just two wins later they’re bottom of the table and already five points from safety. With the January window looming, Blackburn will almost certainly have to bring in reinforcements with some defenders near the top of the ‘wanted’ list.
The club’s current owners have been heavily criticised by the fans. They recently gave Kean a new contract and appear to be out of touch with the fans and the requirements of running a Premier League club. I had the pleasure of sitting in the suite next to them for United’s trip to Ewood last season – despite it being illegal, they were constantly lighting cigarettes during the game and smoking inside the stands and in the stadium (their box has an open front, no glass on it). Like the owners, Steve Kean is wanted out of the club by the supporters – they voiced their discontent loudly during the recent home defeat to Bolton.
With 16 points taken from their last 18 available and seven clean sheets in the last nine, United are the league’s form team. United are level on points with Man City and surprisingly have been better away from home than at home this season. Only City and Newcastle have taken points off the Reds at Old Trafford and no team has scored more home goals.
Consecutive 5-0 wins have been handed out to Fulham and Wigan; can the game against Blackburn continue the pattern?!
Surprisingly, despite not winning away from home, Blackburn don’t have the worst away record in the league – that belongs to Swansea; nor are they the least in-form side in the league, QPR and Bolton both have picked up fewer points in their last six games. Amazingly, Blackburn haven’t kept a clean sheet all season and have managed to score in every away league game they’ve played (only City, Chelsea, Everton and Cardiff have kept them out). They do have the joint worst away defence in the league though (with Arsenal).
Only Yakubu has scored more than 3 league goals for Blackburn, he has 10 this season. Rooney is United’s top scorer with 13 and both Hernandez and Nani have 6. Nani also has 8 assists, Valencia and Young have 6 and Giggs has 5. Blackburn’s leading assist-makers are Hoilett and Samba, both with 4.
United’s missing list is quite substantial: Vidic, Fabio, Smalling, Evans, Cleverley, Fletcher, Anderson, Young and Owen. Jones may be fit in time and Rio could make the bench.
Blackburn have their own injury issues too – Givet, Nelson, Dann and Grella will all miss out whilst Robinson, Olsson, Hoilett and Dunn are big doubts.
United formation and starting XI prediction:
My team makes a few of assumptions: 1. Jones will be fit; 2. Rooney will play; 3. Berbatov will keep his place
After two games for Lindegaard, De Gea should be recalled to the side. Defence will provide the biggest problems with so many players out and there may even be a first league start for Zeki Fryers. Rooney could be used centrally although it would be harsh to drop Gibson after a good display against Wigan. Welbeck appears to be first choice at the moment and he could partner Berbatov with Hernandez missing out.
Once again, there’s the prospect of some of the younger attacking players being included on the bench: Pogba and Morrison most notably.
Instead of picking out the key battle, I thought I’d introduce a couple of Blackburn’s younger players given their regular involvement this season.
Grant Hanley – recently turned 20, Grant’s a big strong centre back. He’s good in the air but slow on the turn. He’s already made over 20 first team appearances for Blackburn having left Rangers aged 16. He was quickly made Blackburn’s U18 captain and has been capped at various levels for Scotland including the full national side.
Adam Henley – aged just 17, Adam got his first start at Liverpool a few days ago. He can play in either fullback position and despite being born in America, he’s played for Wales at U19 level. He’s quick and likes to get quickly into a tackle.
Jason Lowe – Jason’s primarily a central or right sided midfielder who can cover at right back if needed. He turned 20 at the start of the season and after getting his debut at the start of 2011 he went out to Oldham on loan. Lowe returned and has forced his way into the first team this season getting regular minutes. He’s won England U21 caps and recently captained the England U20 side. Lowe’s relatively quick and has good feet, Blackburn will try to get him on the ball regularly if Dunn isn’t fit.
Ruben Rochina – he joined at the end of the January transfer window last season from Barcelona. Despite high hopes, he never really made a huge impression at Barca. However, since joining Blackburn he was a regular goalscorer in their Reserves (including a wonder-goal at Old Trafford) and has gone on to play regularly this season in the first team. He has a sweet left foot and a penchant for the spectacular strike – giving him time and space would be criminal.
History and last meeting:
United and Blackburn have met 96 times in the league previously with United winning just shy of half of them. In the Premier League this will be the 35th meeting of which Blackburn have won five and just one at Old Trafford. On average United score more than one goal in this game and concede less than one goal a game. Blackburn’s win came in September 2005. This fixture has only ever had two goalless draws – in 1914 and April 2005.
United recorded their biggest winning margin over Blackburn last year with a 7-1 win; Berbatov famously scored five goals whilst Nani and Park got the other two.
Despite injuries, United’s form has been excellent lately as goals have returned alongside a solid defence. Blackburn haven’t won away from home this year and are yet to keep a clean sheet. Goals will be on the menu and I suspect that Blackburn may even have a say themselves. I’m going to predict a 5-1 Man United win with Blackburn taking the lead!
Mike Dean – Dean’s refereed more games than any other referee this season in the league and this will be his 15th. He’s shown just one red card and averages just over 3 yellow cards per game with no clear favouritism for the home or away team. However, over 75% of his yellow cards are given out in the second half of games. He last was in charge of a United game in the 1-0 win at Swansea.
Phil Jones was signed from Blackburn this summer and is a supporter of the club. Nick Blackman, Blackburn’s young striker, spent some time in United’s Academy as a youngster.
– United have taken the lead inside the first ten minutes of their last three league games
– United are the only club to have scored in every league game this season
– David Bentley scored a hat-trick in Blackburn’s last win over United
Ferguson on form: “Hopefully we can keep the momentum going. The form is good and the players are enjoying themselves too.”
Jones on Blackburn: “I’m still a massive fan and have a lot of friends at the club. As soon as we come off the pitch I always look to see how Blackburn have got on. I am sure things will improve.”
Kean on Fergie: “Sir Alex left a long message and I called him back. We had a good chat and I was very appreciative of his message of support, along with most other managers who have been in contact.”
For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.
To read about the young defenders from the Reserves who may be needed, click here.