On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United FC travel to East London for a lunch-time clash with West Ham United at Upton Park. In the reverse fixture back in August at Old Trafford, United cruised to a comfortable 3-0 victory with goals from Wayne Rooney, Nani, and Dimitar Berbatov. However, the Hammers did eliminate United from the Carling Cup at Upton Park in a 0-4 thrashing on 30 November. The away side will be without manager Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline as the United boss is serving the 2nd of a five-game ban for his apparent improper conduct involving comments about referee Martin Atkinson. Both sides come into the match after a two-week international break with different objectives; United seek a record 19th league title while West Ham hope to fight off relegation.
Manchester United: United come into the match top of the table in the Barclays Premier League by five points over title-contending rival Arsenal FC, however, the North London side have a game in hand. In their most recent match before the break for internationals, the Red Devils defeated Bolton Wanderers 1-0 at Old Trafford after a late-winner by Berbatov. Prior to that, United suffered their only losing streak of the season in away defeats by Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC. United also recently earned passage to the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League by defeating Olympique de Marseille and also earned their way to the semi-final of the FA Cup by defeating Arsenal 2-0.
Prior to the international break, injuries absolutely devastated the squad, especially to the defense. Rafael, John O'Shea, Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Anders Lindegaard, and Anderson are all likely out due to injury. Jonny Evans and Paul Scholes are unavailable due to suspension. Darren Fletcher is likely available, but the Scot missed action prior to the break due to a virus and he also didn't participate in matches for his country during internationals in the past two weeks. Park Ji-Sung and Michael Owen both missed significant time prior to the break but both are expected to be available on Saturday. Skipper Nemanja Vidic was injured before the break as well, but the Serbian center-back should be available after returning to health in time for a Euro 2012 qualifier on Tuesday for his country.
West Ham United: The East London side currently sit 17th in the Premier League table, only one spot out of the relegation zone due to goal differential. The clear objective for Avram Grant's side is to avoid relegation and earn their keep in the Premier League for next season. Despite their struggles this season, West Ham enjoyed a good run of form prior to the break and were unbeaten in their last four league matches. This included an impressive 3-1 victory over Liverpool and a hard fought 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane versus Tottenham Hotspur. The Hammers have recently shown the ability to compete well against top sides.
The injury concerns for West Ham pale in comparison to United's. Peter Kurucz, Jack Collison, and Junior Stanislas are all out due to injury. Scott Parker and Frederic Piquionne both have knocks but are expected to be available for Saturday's tie.
As mentioned previously, the biggest personnel concern for United is in defense. Both O'Shea and Rafael, who are the two current first-choice right-backs, are expected to be unavailable due to hamstring injuries. Even Wes Brown was forced to be subbed off at half versus Bolton due to injury. If Brown in unable to go, expect Fabio to fill-in at right-back. Fletcher, who is a tactical swiss-army knife, is also a possibility to fill-in at right-back. Expect Chris Smalling and Vidic to be the center-back pairing and to be flanked in defense on the left side by Patrice Evra. In the past six matches, United have played in a '4-2-3-1' shape five times and its quite possible they play in this formation again. If that is the case, expect Michael Carrick to be one of the double pivots and for him to be possibly paired by Ryan Giggs in a more advanced more. If Fletcher returns to full-health, he could be deployed here as well. The likely wide players are Antonio Valencia and Nani, especially if Fergie wants to preserve Giggs' fitness for the upcoming mid-week clash at Stamford Bridge versus Chelsea in Champions League play. Rooney could be deployed in a withdrawn and play-making role, one in which he has recently thrived in. Despite the superb play of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez recently, it's possible that the Premier League's leading goal-scorer Berbatov gets the call to play up-front. Chicharito recently played 135 minutes for the Mexican national team in a short span on the west coast of the United States; fatigue may be a factor and the Bulgarian striker may get a chance to add to his season's goal-scoring account at Upton Park.
*UPDATE*: Brown and Fletcher have been ruled out, the latter is still suffering from a virus. Park and Anderson are both likely to be available. Vidic and Owen will return. Ferdinand has resumed training and the club has targeted the match versus Fulham next week as his return date. All of this likely means that Fabio will be the right-back at Upton Park. Expect to see either Giggs or Darron Gibson in the middle of the pitch with Carrick.
As for West Ham, the East London side have recently been playing in an asymmetrical '4-1-4-1' shape. Former England No. 1 Robert Green is expected in goal. The center-back pairing should be skipper Matthew Upson and Manuel da Costa. Wayne Bridge, who is on loan from Manchester City, is the likely left-back while either Lars Jacobsen or James Tompkins should be at right-back. Parker, who is coming off an impressive performance for England in their Euro 2012 qualifier versus Wales, likely will be positioned as the holding midfielder shielding his defense. HIgher up the center of the pitch, expect Parker to be joined by Mark Noble and Thomas Hitzlsperger, the latter of which in an attacking role. Either Gary O'Neil or Piquionne will be the likely choice as the wide player on the right. Expect to see Demba Ba on the opposite side of the pitch, but in a higher position. Carlton Cole is the first-choice striker but he interchanges quite a bit with Ba.
*Note: If personnel news is released at Fergie's weekly press conference, I will update the projections and injury news on this preview. Therefore, be sure to check back for all the updated news in regards to projected lineups.
Tactical Keys to the Match:
* Parker plays very deep in a holding role for West Ham. However, his ability to be a box-to-box midfielder allows him to make selective runs forward and support the attack. Rooney, and especially so in United's recent '4-2-3-1', likes to drop in between the lines of midfield and defense in search of space so that he can create with his vision and range of passing. If Parker stays deep, he can help combat this by occupying this space and making it more difficult for Rooney to operate out of there. However, if Parker gets forward and Rooney doesn't track back when United are out of position, United are in danger of being overrun in the central midfield due to a numerical advantage for West Ham. This is something to keep an eye on.
* United's right-side versus West Ham's left-side may be a key battle front as well. Ba typically stays very high up the pitch and he loves to interchange positionally with Cole. This could cause concern for United because of their limited options at right-back, thus communication will be key for whoever fills in. If Brown is healthy enough to go, expect Fergie to put the experienced defender at right-back in order to help stabilize that area of the pitch with sound positioning and communication. The youngster Smalling has the tendency at times to get dragged out of position so his decision making is vital in combatting the movement of Cole and Ba. Also, if Valencia is deployed on that right-side for United, his abilities as a defender could prove useful in assisting when United are out of possession. The work-rate of the Ecuadorian winger could prove vital not only when helping in defense, but also in pinning back Bridge so that he can't get forward for over-lapping runs.
* West Ham's pressing high up the pitch and United's lack of ability to deal with that tactic away from Old Trafford is a concern. If Cole, Ba, Hitzlsperger, and Noble are successful in causing United problems with their pressing, this will then invite the dangerous Parker to get forward into the attack. United's double pivots will need to be composed on the ball and swing it around quickly to negate this expected pressure.
Odds: West Ham 7/2, Draw 12/5, United 4/5
Prediction: West Ham 1-2 United