The brief international break is over and Manchester United resume their Premier League campaign on Saturday when they take on Norwich City at Carrow Road. During this same fixture last season in February of this year, a Ryan Giggs stoppage-time winner -- in his 900th appearance for the club -- helped the Red Devils snatch three points. In the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in October of last year, goals from Danny Welbeck and Anderson led to a 2-0 defeat of the Canaries.
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the Premier League table with 27 points from 11 matches -- this is 2 points clear of Manchester City and 3 clear of Chelsea. Since a late September defeat by Tottenham Hotspur, the Red Devils have won eight successive matches combined in league and in the UEFA Champions League. Their most recent victory came last weekend in a 3-2 defeat of Aston Villa at Villa Park. United have already clinched top of their Champions League group with two group-stage fixtures to spare.
Team News: Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones, and Shinji Kagawa are expected to be unavailable while the status of Jonny Evans, Nani, Wayne Rooney, and Robin van Persie are uncertain. The latter four all missed out for their national team sides this past midweek due to minor knocks. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson should likely provide an update during his weekly Friday morning press conference.
*Update (Friday, 10:30am GMT) -- Sir Alex has just indicated, in his weekly press conference, that Rooney and Evans are doubts but that RvP is available (Full Team News Report)
Form Guide: Norwich City currently sit 15th in the table with 11 points from 11 matches. It was a slow start for manager Chris Hughton at his new club as he didn't find a league win until the eight fixture -- it was an impressive 1-0 defeat, though, of Arsenal on October 20 at Carrow Road. Since that match, the Canaries have gone four league matches unbeaten and their last match occurred last weekend in a 0-0 draw at Reading. They have also reached the quarter-final of the Capital One Cup.
Team News: Defender Russell Martin has missed out as of late due to a back issue while forward Harry Kane is dealing with a metatarsal fracture.
United: For United, Ferguson will likely choose his strongest lineup and then look to rest players in the upcoming midweek fixture in Turkey versus Galatasaray. In goal, David de Gea is likely but Anders Lindegaard is certainly possible due to the aerial threat of the Canaries. Rio Ferdinand is certain to start at center-back and he will be partnered by
either Evans or Chris Smalling. Expect Patrice Evra at left-back while Rafael is expected at right-back.
United won't much have much trouble battling in the center of the park in this match so expect Ferguson to deploy his side in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape rather than a 4-3-3 or a midfield diamond. Michael Carrick is almost certain to start while Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley are the most likely candidates as a partner. Giggs and Anderson are in contention as well.
In attack, expect Antonio Valencia as the right-winger. Ferguson has already indicated that Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) would likely start this match after his splendid form as of late. Rooney and van Persie are undroppable at the moment so if both are healthy, look for the latter to partner Chicharito while the former could move to the left. If either or both of Rooney and van Persie miss out due to their current minor knocks, then Welbeck is possible either up front or to the left while Ashley Young is possible too on the left.
Norwich City: John Ruddy is the No.1 while Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner are the first-choice center-back pairing. Steven Whittaker will likely deputise at right-back for Martin while Javier Garrido is expected at left-back. Alexander Tettey and Ryan Johnson are anticipated as the center-midfield duo, Anthony Pilkington as the left-winger, and either Robert Snodgrass or Elliott Bennett as the right-sided attacker. Grant Holt is the fulcrum in attack up front while Wes Hoolahan is the playmaker in behind the center-forward.
* The basics of Norwich City: Under previous manager Paul Lambert, the Canaries were an incredibly versatile side -- they could switch formations in the middle of a match and any of 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-midfield diamond-2, or a back three were possible -- and their cohesion was impressive. All of this helped them take the Premier League by surprise last season in a wonderful first season after winning promotion.
Under Hughton, Norwich have generally played in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-31ish shape. Against better sides, they've defended deep in two compact banks of four, with Hoolahan sometimes dropping back to make it a midfield band of five, and then they look to break forward using Holt as an outlet or by using Hoolahan to link the midfield and attack (Holt). The center-forward is very physical and strong in the air and helps enable him to hold the ball up in order to bring others forward into attack and he also gets on the end of crosses from the wide players. The wingers send in a continual supply of crosses and the full-backs generally try to get forward as well in support of the attack. The central-midfielders sit relatively deep and they simply look to swing the ball out wide or punt it deep for Holt.
* Holt, the target-man: In recent seasons, when Vidic has been out of the lineup, Untied have been vulnerable at times when tasked with dealing with a big and bruising center-forward. Holt is of that ilk. Ferdinand, Smalling, and Evans are all solid enough in aerial duels -- the latter, in fact, has improved quite a bit in this regard in the past year -- but none are dominant forces like Vidic is (or was). Holt is key to the Canaries' attack and it'll likely be up to either Smalling or Evans to continually battle him in open play. The striker will be tasked with being the focal point for long passes and crosses and how well United cope with him will likely determine if the home side can continually generate enough chances in order to earn a result. This is also important for Norwich to be able to relieve pressure. On set-pieces -- where United have been using a hybrid man-marking/zonal system when defending -- it'll be key to not lose track of Holt -- whether that is by his clever movement or by a defender being screened off. Erase Holt from this match, and you likely erase Norwich's attacking threat.
* United need high-tempo & movement in attack: A worrying thing has occurred a few times recently in matches against inferior sides: slow tempo and meaningless possession not leading to any incisiveness in attack, the opposition going ahead after poor defending, and then United stepping on the gas pedal and using pace and their genius in attack to score a wave of goals. Hughton's side are clearly inferior (no disrespect intended and they'd tell you the same) and they will be the proactive side. Can United find that high tempo early on and actually go ahead early?
It'll be okay for United to risk vulnerabilities in their shape (by getting their full-backs and one central-midfielder forward in attacking moves) because they should have the confidence to pull back any goals they concede. If the Red Devils can score an early goal,though, through more urgency with their tempo and with clever movement dragging defenders out of shape -- especially from United's interchanging left-side -- then this might force Norwich to come out and play a bit more. This could also result in a very easy victory for Sir Alex's side as the goals could pour in if the home side open up. If Hughton's side scores first though, they can bunker in and be more difficult to break down. An early goal by United could make life much easier for themselves on Saturday.
KO: 5:30pm GMT, 12:30pm EST | Carrow Road
LIVE TV: ESPN (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor
ODDS: Norwich City 6/1, Draw 10/3, Manchester United 4/9