Bolton Wanderers make the short trek over to Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon to clash with Manchester United FC in a Barclays Premier League tie. During the reverse fixture back in September at the Reebok, United twice fought back from a deficit to equalise and earn a 2-2 draw. The home side will be without manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline after the FA handed the United boss a five-game ban for improper conduct after the comments he made about referee Martin Atkinson following United's away defeat by Chelsea FC on March 1st. Sir Alex has decided not to appeal the ban and he requested that it start immediately, thus, the United boss will not be roaming the sidelines versus Bolton on Saturday. However, this will allow him to return in time for an important fixture at the Emirates versus Arsenal in May.
Manchester United: United come into the match top of the table in the Premier League by three points over Arsenal, however, the North London side have a game in hand. In their most recent match, the Reds defeated French champions Olympique de Marseille 2-1 at Old Trafford on Tuesday night to advance to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League for a 5th consecutive season. Prior to that, United defeated Arsenal 2-0 in a FA Cup tie to earn passage to Wembley for their 27th FA Cup semi-final, more than any other club. In the club's two most recent league matches, United are coming off of their only losing streak of the season after away defeats by Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC. However, Old Trafford has been a fortress for the club as United remain unbeaten there, including taking 40 points out of a possible 42 in league play.
Injuries have absolutely devastated the squad recently. Because United currently have only four healthy defenders, it has been speculated that center-back Jonny Evans will attempt to rush his return from injury so that he can help bolster that unit. Fergie revealed this week that Rio Ferdinand is struggling to return from a calf injury and that he may not even return at all this season. Recent first and second choice right-backs, John O'Shea and Rafael, both were forced to leave the pitch versus Marseille on Tuesday after suffering hamstring injuries and neither are likely to be available for another 4-5 weeks. In addition, skipper Nemanja Vidic is unavailable after he picked up a knock in the recent Arsenal tie, one that caused him to also miss the mid-week clash with Marseille. In the central midfield, Darren Fletcher is out due to a virus. Paul Scholes faces a two-match domestic suspension after picking up his 10th booking this season versus Arsenal. Furthermore, Anderson, Park Ji-sung, Owen Hargreaves, and Michael Owen have all missed significant time recently and none appear to be featured until after the upcoming international break. Reserve goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard is out as well with a knee injury that required an operation this past week.
Bolton: The Trotters currently sit 7th in the Premier League table and they are targeting a spot in European competition for next season. Manager Owen Coyle has also guided his side to the FA Cup semi-final and if they are able to defeat Stoke City in that tie at Wembley, Bolton likely will have earned a spot to the Europa League for next season. Their most recent match was a thrilling FA Cup quarter-final clash with the League Cup champions Birmingham City; a match which saw Lee Chung-Yong score a late header to put his side up 3-2 and earn a semi-final date at Wembley. Prior to that , Bolton are unbeaten in their past three league ties with victories over Aston Villa and Fulham FC and a draw versus Newcastle United. In Coyle's season and a half tenure at Bolton, the manager has transformed the club from a punt and chase side to one that attempts to play technically sound football. This transformation has earned Coyle and his side plaudits.
Bolton have injury concerns but they pale in comparison to United's. Sam Ricketts, Gretar Rafn Steinsson, Sean Davis, Zat Knight, Mark Davies, Jlloyd Samuel, and Joey O'Brien have all recently dealt with injury. However, it appears that Steinsson and Knight will be able to featured at Old Trafford.
If Evans does return from injury to be featured in this match, expect him to be paired with Chris Smalling at center-back with Wes Brown sliding over to right-back. If Evans is unable to go, there have been rumblings that Michael Carrick could potentially be asked to play center-back. Patrice Evra will likely be the left-back with Edwin van der Sar in goal. If Fergie elects to play in a '4-4-2' or '4-2-3-1' shape, expect to see Carrick and Darron Gibson as your central midfielders. If Carrick is moved to center-back, it's possible that Ryan Giggs could be asked to play in a central midfield role alongside Gibson. The most likely wide players are Giggs, Antonio Valencia, and Nani. If Fergie feels that the 37-year-old Giggs needs a rest after a full 90 on Tuesday evening, it's possible that Valencia could be on the right flank and Nani on the left. However, with Nani and Valencia both having fitness concerns after both recently returned from injury and with a two-week international break coming up after Saturday's match, it's possible that Giggs starts again on the left and Nani and Valencia once again combine to provide 90 minutes on the right. Expect to see Wayne Rooney in a withdrawn and playmaking role in attack, with either Dimitar Berbatov or Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez as the center-forward. Chicharito has played 180 minutes in the past week so it's possible that the Premier League's leading goal-scorer Berbatov gets the call versus Bolton.
As for Bolton, expect to see a '4-4-2' shape. Jussi Jaaskelainen will likely be in goal along with the Gary Cahill and David Wheater as the center-back pairing. If healthy, Steinsson is the first-choice right-back and Paul Robinson is the likely left-back. Expect to see Fabrice Muamba and Stuart Holden in the center of the pitch. Bolton's leading goal-scorer Johan Elmander will probably be featured on the right-flank with the recent loan-signee Daniel Sturridge in Elmander's old role as the withdrawn forward. Martin Petrov is the probable player on the left flank with Kevin Davies as the target-forward.
Tactical Keys to the Match:
* Bolton play a classic '4-4-2' style with Davies as the target man and Sturridge playing off of him waiting for the knock-down. The two central midfielders are 'box-to-box' types and each work hard in defense and when in possession, they quickly try to get the ball to the wide players or they look to send in long-balls for Davies.
* Because Bolton play in this '4-4-2', one that isn't very staggered in between the bands, there should be room for Rooney to come deep for the ball and wreak havoc. When out of possession, Bolton generally play in two rigid bands of four in the defense and midfield. In the space between these two bands, Rooney will likely have acres of space and as a result, he'll have plenty of time in order to create in attack. This can be a difficult area for center-backs as they are typically unsure if they should follow the withdrawn player. If they do, they leave space in behind them that can be exposed. If they don't follow, it allows Rooney to get the ball with time and space. If this is the case, Berbatov and Chicharito will have to stay high and help stretch the defensive backline, thus maximizing the space for Rooney to operate in.
* If Gibson does start, he might be best suited to use his energy to pressure his midfield counter-parts. Holden and Muamba will look to string passes together, but their likely goal will always be to get the ball to their wide players so that they can send in crosses from the flanks. If United can pressure Bolton, it might force them to resort to their old tactics of just sending the ball long to Davies and hoping to win knock-downs.
* Because of the threat of Davies, United's center-backs will have not only have to be strong in the air challenging him, but they also must communicate and make sure the surrounding defenders are winning the knock-down and picking up the runners who will try to create something from them.
* Communication and positioning: When Vidic has paired with either Ferdinand and Smalling, United have been rock solid in defense and have always been positionally sound. Any other pairing this season has caused nervy moments due likely to poor communication. Here are two recent examples: vs Marseille and at Liverpool.
Prediction: United 3-2