Manchester United and Chelsea have clashed in a plethora of grand encounters over the past decade or so -- Premier League title-deciders, domestic cup finals, and a Champions League final -- and while Sunday's upcoming league contest at Stamford Bridge isn't quite of that magnitude, it is still highly anticipated. These battles have evolved from tense and tight affairs in the past to track meets in the most recent meetings. The two sides met twice last season in league fixtures and they combined for a total of ten goals -- there was the 3-1 victory by United at Old Trafford (and a shocking miss from Fernando Torres!) and the incredible comeback by Sir Alex Ferguson's men to storm back and earn a draw after a 0-3 deficit in the second half. The Bridge is a hostile place for United though as they've yet to win there in league since 2002. However, the Red Devils did earn a victory scalp in the 2010-11 season during the away leg of a Champions League quarter-final tie.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend sitting second in the league table with eighteen points from eight matches. In Europe, they currently top their group with a 100% record from three ties. Their two matches since the recent international break includes a 4-2 defeat of Stoke City last weekend at home and another home victory, this time 3-2 against Portuguese side Braga at the midweek in a European fixture.
Form Guide: Chelsea are off to what is a typically flying start for them as they've only dropped two points this season in league. They're clear of United and Manchester City by four points. The current European champions, though, have not shown the same form in Europe as they've only gathered four points from their three fixtures. Since the international break, the Blues defeated Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 last weekend at White Hart Lane and they were defeated 1-2 at the midweek away to Shaktar Donetsk in a European tie.
United: Projecting the starters in the back is fairly obvious: David de Gea will be in goal, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans the central-defenders, and Patrice Evra and Rafael as the full-backs. In midfield and in the attack, though, the selection choices will be dependent on what system Ferguson decides to use. Will he opt for a 4-4-1-1 or will he try his recently experimented with midfield diamond? -- or might he use a 4-3-3 or perhaps a hybrid 4-3-3/diamond system? This is anybody's guess right now.
If a 4-4-1-1 is used, any two of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, and Anderson could be in anticipated in central midfield while Antonio Valencia would certainly be the right-winger. On the left, Danny Welbeck would be likely while Nani would be in contention. Robin van Persie is the No.9 in this system while Wayne Rooney would play in behind.
Diagram 1: A possible starting XI for United if a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system is used.
If a diamond is used, either Carrick or Darren Fletcher would sit in front of the back four in a holding-role. Ahead of the holder in shuttling roles, Cleverley would occupy one spot and Anderson, or possibly Valencia, would be in the other spot. Rooney would be the playmaker at the tip of the diamond and he'd play in support of RvP and either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
In a traditional 4-3-3, any combination of Carrick, Scholes, Anderson, Cleverley, and Fletcher would be possible in a in a midfield trio. In the attacking trident, RvP would lead the line while Valencia would be the right-winger. Rooney won't be dropped for this fixture so this likely would mean him in narrow left-sided role. However, Ferguson could opt for a 4-3-3/diamond hybrid by playing Rooney centrally -- essentially still maintaining a midfield diamond -- while having Valencia stay wide on the right in order to occupy Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole. This would essentially dare Blues' right-back Branislav Ivanovic to get forward.
Diagram 2: How a possible 4-3-3/diamond hybrid might look against Chelsea. The space for Ivanovic, in this hypothetical situation, is quite obvious.
What do I think will happen? Well, without any true conviction in my belief, I have a gut feeling that Ferguson might stick with the diamond system and I think he may have been experimenting with it this past month with this Chelsea fixture and next week's Arsenal one in mind. Perhaps Carrick holds, Cleverley shuttles on the left side, and maybe Valencia is introduced into a new role as a shuttler on the right side. The Ecuadorian is tactically disciplined and he often plays a similar narrow role for his country in international ties. This could also put him in the vicinity of Cole.
In attack, Ferguson might stick with the fluid trident of Rooney, Welbeck, and RvP. With this possible starting XI, Ferguson could always switch back to a 4-4-1-1 or a more traditional 4-3-3 if his diamond is not working. Carrick and Cleverley could form a midfield duo in a 4-4-1-1 or they could be joined by Rooney in a 4-3-3 midfield trio. In attack, Welbeck could always move to the left in a switch to a 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3. The versatility of these players allows Ferguson to makes changes early in the match, if he deems it necessary, without having to make any substitutions.
Diagram 3: A possible midfield diamond starting XI for United with Valencia in a shuttling role. These same XI players could switch to a 4-4-1-1 or a traditional 4-3-3, if deemed necessary, without Ferguson being forced to make a substitution.
Chelsea: For Chelsea Roberto Di Matteo (RDM), his selections choices are much simpler and for the most part, Ferguson knows what to expect. In his proactive 4-2-3-1 system, Peter Cech is the clear No.1 and the back four will include Cole, Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, and David Luiz. In the double-pivot, Lampard's injury makes it obvious that Ramires will join John Obi Mikel in the double-pivot. In the attacking-midfield band, the playmaking trio of Juan Mata, Oscar, and Eden Hazard are anticipated but if RDM desires more stability on his left flank, then Ryan Bertrand could come into the side as a defensive winger in support of Cole -- this possibility would be at the expense of either Oscar or Hazard. Up front, Fernando Torres is the first-choice No.9 with Didier Drogba having departed in the summer.
Diagram 4: Chelsea's anticipated starting XI in their 4-2-3-1 system
* What formation does Ferguson choose?: We know how RDM will line up his side and his only choice is whether to deploy three No.10's together -- Mata, Hazard, and Oscar -- in the attacking-midfield band or whether to pull one off and add more stability to the left flank by using Bertrand as a defensive winger. Because Ferguson is fully aware of this, the ball is in his court and as discussed in the 'projecting lineups' portion of this preview, he has numerous systems from which he can choose from. Whatever shape he decides to go with will greatly influence the pattern of the match.
If a 4-4-1-1 is chosen by the United boss, the game will be helter-skelter and it will be an open affair. The talented front fours of both sides will be looking to surge forward as much as possible and they will be supplemented by marauding full-backs as well. This would leave space in behind and possibility allow the likes of Ramires and Cleverley to be key players as carriers in midfield with their mobility. In this scenario, there will be goals.
If Ferguson fancies a diamond, then the middle of the pitch will be congested and perhaps this could stymie Chelsea's narrow front four. However, there will be space for Chelsea's full-backs to get forward into and despite their crosses not likely to danger United due to the lack of an aerial threat for the Blues, the home side would have opportunities to build attacking moves from out wide due to overloads. If a United defender or midfielder is dragged out of position in order to help out in the wide areas, then Chelsea's playmakers are capable of exploiting that space by moving into it or finding a pass that threads it.
The only way the game can seemingly get clogged up is if United deploy themselves in a traditional 4-3-3. Every player would have a natural foil and chances being created would be dependent on individual moments of brilliance from both side's attackers. If a 4-3-3/diamond hybrid shape is chosen, then the open player would be Ivanovic for Chelsea and as previously discussed, that would be a dare to the Serbian to hurt United from the right-flank. And if the Chelsea right-back were to get caught out, United could possibly look to counterattack in the space behind him when Rooney or RvP float into that left side of open space.
* Valencia vs. Cole: No matter how you feel about Cole, it cannot be disputed that he's been the best left-back in world football for the past decade. He's not quite the player that he was during his prime but he's still a good player. Despite the Englishman's quality and credentials, United right-winger Valencia has been able to get the best of him in the past few seasons. If Tony V is deployed on the right flank for United, Ferguson will be hoping the Ecuadorian can pin back his counterpart. This could have a trickle down effect because it could make Chelsea's attack predictable and easier to manage. Chelsea's front four is obviously dangerous -- well at least the attacking-midfielders are -- but they tend to play narrow and the overall attack is improved when width is provided from the full-backs. If Valencia can handle his opponent again, then this could take out a dimension to the Chelsea attack.
One possible twist to this match-up is if Valencia is given a shuttling role in a midfield diamond. He would still be in the vicinity of Cole but he wouldn't be tight. It could be a concern because this would be a role he's yet to play in for United and perhaps he would be hesitant in his decision-making whether to pick up Cole or one of Chelsea's central-midfielders.
KO: 4:00pm GMT, 12:00pm EST | Stamford Bridge
LIVE TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg
ODDS: Chelsea 11/8, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 2/1