Manchester United travel over to Elland Road on Tuesday night for a Carling Cup clash with old rival Leeds United. Although Leeds have spent the majority of their history in England's top flight football league, a financial implosion about a decade ago, factored heavily in their relegation in 2004 -- the Yorkshire club has not seen Premier League football since. These two sides met in January 2010 when Leeds, who were a League One club at the time, defeated the Reds at Old Trafford duing a FA Cup tie. Despite the lack of meetings in recent years, the animosity between the two groups of supporters remains fierce -- United will certainly face a hostile and vociferous crowd at Elland Road.
United come into the match top of the table of the Premier League with a maximum 15 points. In their five league matches thus far, the Reds have scored an impressive 21 goals and their victory scalps include Chelsea FC, Arsenal FC, and Tottenham Hotspur. The Carling Cup, which United have won twice in the past three seasons, is the third competition to begin in this young season for the club. After two difficult matches in the past week, which included a midweek away tie at SL Benfica in the UEFA Champions League and the clash with Chelsea this past Sunday, it is likely that manager Sir Alex Ferguson rests many of his recent regulars.
Injuries are currently a concern at the moment, especially in defense. Captain Nemanja Vidic continues to recover from a calf injury while right-back Rafael is recovering from shoulder surgery. Center-back Rio Ferdinand has battled injury throughout the young season and his status is uncertain for this tie after he sat out the Chelsea match on Sunday. The versatile Chris Smalling was substituted off on Sunday after suffering a groin injury and his status is uncertain as well. Up front, both Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) will be not be available -- the former has resumed training but is still recovering from a hamstring injury while the latter is experiencing numbness in his leg after a rash challenge from Chelsea's Ashley Cole. Midfielder Tom Cleverley is recovering from ligament damage suffered in the Bolton Wanderers match.
Leeds currently sit 11th in the Championship table after 7 league matches. Their 13 league goals exhibits an ability to attack but their 12 goals conceded is the 2nd highest in the division. In recent weeks, the Whites have shown good form in their 3-2 defeat of Crystal Palace and their 2-1 defeat of Bristol City. Short of earning promotion to the Premier League or a miraculous run to a cup final, a possible defeat of United could potentially be their biggest achievement of the season. To reach this 3rd round of the Carling Cup, Leeds defeated Bradford City 3-2 in Round 1 and defeated Doncaster Rovers away 1-2 in Round 2.
Leeds have a clean bill of health. The only significant player that is unavailable is Patrick Kisnorbo after receiving a red card in his last match.
Fergie has hinted that some youth players may feature in this match, something has been a common occurrence in past season for United in the Carling Cup. On Monday, he specifically mentioned Paul Pogba as a youngster that will play versus Leeds -- whether that means as a starter or as a substitute is up to interpretation. The manager also indicated that several experienced players will play as well and this likely includes those who have yet to regularly feature during this young season.
In goal for United, Anders Lindegaard is likely to start and this will allow No 1 David De Gea to get some rest. At center-back, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones appear the most likely candidates to start as each are the only certain healthy central defenders at the moment. If Ferdinand is healthy, he could start so that either Evans or Jones can get a rest -- each went the full 90 minutes just two days ago versus Chelsea. Fabio is almost certain to start, but at which full-back spot is unknown. Patrice Evra deserves a rest but with the injury to Smalling and Rafael, he may be forced to start again at left-back with Fabio at right-back. If Evra is rested and Fabio plays left-back, Antonio Valencia could play right-back -- a position that he played versus Chelsea in the 2nd half. With United expected to dominate possession, he could prove a threat as a marauding right-back. In the center of the park, Pogba could make his debut. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs are strong possibilities to start as well as neither started on Sunday. Out wide, Giggs and Park Ji-sung are the most likely candidates as a rest for Ashley Young and Nani seems prudent. Valencia is a strong possibility as the wide right player as well. Up front, the selection for two spots likely comes down to Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, and Federico Macheda. With Chicharito's injury, one that likely leaves him out for the upcoming league and Champions League matches, Berbatov could be rested with an eye towards United's weekend tie at Stoke City.
For Leeds, a close to first-choice lineup is expected. Leeds typically play in a 4-4-2 shape, but manager Simon Grayson could elect for another player in midfield with a 4-2-3-1 shape -- a formation that he used last season versus Arsenal in the FA Cup. Between the posts, Andy Lonergan is the No 1. In central defense, Darren O'Dea and Tom Lees are probable as the duo -- the latter would be sliding into the middle from his recent right-back role in place of Kisnorbo. Deputising at right-back is likely to be Paul Connolly and Adian White is expected at left-back. In the central midfield, Jonathan Howson and Adam Clayton are the likely starting tandem and they could be flanked by Robert Snodgrass on the right and Ramon Nunez on the left. Up front, Ross McCormack, who has six league goals, is almost certain to start and he will be partnered by either Luciano Becchio or Andrew Keogh.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
With so much guess work being done in projecting lineups, and even formation to a lesser extent, discussing tactics is mostly impractical Therefore, here are a few things to watch for instead during the match:
* Paul Pogba: The 18-year-old, along with Ravel Morrison, are two of brightest youth prospects at United in recent years. The midfielder was vital in the Reds triumphant FA Youth Cup run last season and he's already been integrated in with the first-team for training. It is not certain whether the starlet will start this match but when he does get on the pitch, keep a close eye on him. He's a box-to-box type of player that is both technically sound and physically mature -- he also has a cracking shot from distance.
* Robert Snodgrass: The Scotsman is a talented winger that is capable of playing on either flank. He uses his guile and craft to create enough space for himself so that he can play killer final passes in the attacking third -- his four league assists can attest to this. The 24-year-old won his first cap earlier this year for Scotland and he also appears to talented enough to play in the Premier League. United will need to mark Snodgrass tightly as he is their main creative outlet in attack.
* Antonio Valencia at right-back?: Call it a hunch as to why I projected him as the starting right-back -- there is a good chance that this does not happen. However, with the depth concerns United currently have in defense due to injury, and with the incredible form of wingers Young and Nani at the moment, right-back is a position where the Ecuadorian could possibly contribute at in the near-term. He is one of the better defensive-attackers in Europe and both his strength and industry could allow him to excel at the position. In addition, modern football requires full-backs to get forward and to join the attack -- Valencia's crossing from overlapping runs could be a major threat.
* The possible Ross McCormack/Luciano Becchio partnership: As mentioned earlier, McCormack is off to a torrid start this season with 6 goals in 7 league games. Becchio has only made two appearances this season as a substitute as it's typically Keogh this season that starts alongside McCormack. However, indications are Becchio will start and if he does, he provides an aerial threat for Leeds. His goalscoring rate for Leeds has been quite impresssive as well -- 51 goals in 126 appearances. McCormack will likely play off of Becchio and look to win knock-downs and also to get on the end of flick-ons.
Odds: Leeds 9/2, Draw 3/1, Manchester United 8/5
Prediction: Leeds 1-3 Manchester United