On (Super Bowl)* Sunday, Manchester United will be in West London to face a foe that has been a title-contending rival for the better part of the past decade -- Chelsea FC. The two sides clashed five times during the calendar year of 2011: once this season during the reverse fixture when United emerged as 3-1 victors at Old Trafford, twice last season in Premier League action when each side won their respective home fixture, and twice over a two-legged UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie when United won by a 3-1 aggregate. As you may have astutely deduced, the one time Chelsea avoided defeat during these five encounters was during this same fixture last season -- a 2-1 league defeat of United at Stamford Bridge. The Bridge is also a venue where United have not won at since 2002 in league play.
* Sorry, even here, you can't escape the onslaught of Super Bowl promos! My pick is Patriots 31 Giants 28 if you happen to be wondering. You don't care? Okay, moving on...
Form Guide: United come into the match level on points with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. However, the 'noisy neighbours' have a +6 goal differential advantage. The last match for the champions was a comfortable 2-0 defeat of Stoke City at the midweek. Prior to that, the Red Devils followed successive league defeats with successive league victories. Thus, United have picked up the maximum points in their last three league matches. During the past weekend, elimination from the FA Cup occurred at Anfield during a 1-2 defeat by Liverpool.
Team News: Injuries have seemingly been a season-long concern for United but the news in that regard is trending towards the positive end of the spectrum. The big setback from this week is the announcement that goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard will be out for at least four weeks due to an ankle ligament injury sustained in training. However, during his weekly press conference on Friday, manager Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that the likes of Wayne Rooney, Nani, Tom Cleverley, and Ashley Young have all recovered from their injuries and all may be in the squad on Sunday. Along with Lindegaard, the following players are also out for this match: Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, Phil Jones, and Michael Owen. Anderson is also a doubt. (Full Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: It's been a difficult season for the Blues as their title hopes appear to have faded -- finishing at least fourth and qualifying again for next season's UEFA Champions League is very much the aim right now. Chelsea's last league match came at the midweek and it resulted in a 1-1 draw with Swansea City at Liberty Stadium. In their last eight league matches, the West Londoners have only picked up the full three points on two occasions. The past weekend saw Chelsea advance into round 5 of the FA Cup after their 1-0 defeat of Queens Park Rangers during a West London derby. On February 21, Andre Villa-Boas' side will begin a two-legged Champions League knockout stage tie versus Serie A side Napoli.
Team News: Chelsea will be missing a number of key players for this match due to injury, suspension, and the African Cup of Nations (AFCoN). Chelsea captain John Terry -- who was stripped of the England captaincy on Friday by the FA -- is out for the match due to a bone oedema issue in his knee. Midfielders Ramires and John Obi Mikel are also unavailable due to injury while Frank Lampard will undergo a fitness test on Saturday during training in order to determine whether or not if he can feature. Ashley Cole is suspended for the match after being sent off versus Swansea while both Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are both unavailable due to their involvement with Ivory Coast in the AFCoN. (Full Chelsea Team News Report)
United: Fergie has announced that David de Gea will return from injury to be the man between the posts at the Bridge. In central-defense, two of Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling are expected to be selected. Ferdinand's chronic back-injury remains a concern. At left-back, Patrice Evra is the automatic choice while either Smalling or Rafael can be expected at right-back.
In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs -- a duo that was superb last season versus Chelsea -- are strong candidates to start while Paul Scholes is likely to be rested after the 37-year-old featured twice during the past week. The in-form Antonio Valencia is nearly certain to start on the right-flank in attack while any of Park Ji-sung, Nani, or Young could feature on the left-flank. The industrious Park went the full 90 minutes in both of United's matches this week but fitness and sharpness could be a concern for both Nani and Young after their recent injury recovery.
Up front, Rooney is probable to start if Fergie feels he is fit. He likely would be partnered by either Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). If Rooney isn't fit enough to start, then Dimitar Berbatov could deputise as he did versus Stoke. The Bulgarian would more likely be partnered by Chicharito rather than Welbeck.
Chelsea: Villas-Boas appears likely to choose from five defenders while choosing his back-four. At left-back, either Ryan Bertrand or Jose Bosignwa is likely to deputise for Cole. If that choice is Bosignwa, then that means Branislav Ivanovic at right-back while David Luiz and the newly-acquired Gary Cahill would form a center-back partnership. If Bertrand is selected, then either Bosignwa or Ivanovic could be selected at right-back while any two of Ivanovic, Luiz, and Cahill could be chosen at center-back. Villas-Boas' selection for goalkeeper is simple -- No. 1 Peter Cech.
In midfield, the selection choices could be dependent on Frank Lampard's fitness test on Saturday. While Oriol Romeu is almost certain to start as the holding-midfielder, any of Lampard, Michael Essien, Raul Meireles, and Florent Malouda could be chosen to complete a midfield trio. If Lampard is unable to feature, then it is likely Essien and Meireles that would join Romeu. However, Essien has recently returned from injury and his fitness may be a concern.
In attack, Fernando Torres will almost certainly lead the line with Drogba in Africa and with Nicolas Anelka being sold to a club from China. Daniel Sturridge is expected as the wide forward on the right while Juan Mata typically comes in from the left flank to act as his side's chief creative force in attack.
Villas-Boas could spring a slight surprise by deploying his side in a 4-2-3-1ish shape -- the one used in the 2nd half for Chelsea during their match with Swansea. In addition, Villas-Boas used a similar 4-2-1-3ish shape at Old Trafford during the 2nd half of the reverse fixture. In this possible scenario, any two of Romeu, Essien, and Meireles would likely operate as 'double-pivots' while Mata could be used in a 'number 10' role behind Torres. This would mean Sturridge still on the right and possibly Malouda as the wide attacker on the left.
* Force Chelsea to play on the flanks: This piece from We Ain't Got No History -- SB Nation's Chelsea site -- does well to illustrate that the Blues simply are not very effective when crossing the ball. The terrific analysis points out three things about Chelsea: (1) Three of their four highest crossing efforts of the season have occurred in the span of their past five matches -- (a) Swansea - 45, (a) Norwich City - 40, Aston Villa -39. (2) There seems be a correlation that when Chelsea whip in crosses at less frequent rate, their goalscoring rates tend to go up. (3) There also seems to be a correlation that when Chelsea attempt more through balls, their goalscoring rates go up.
There is a tactical explanation for this. Both of Chelsea's wide forwards in their system -- whether it be starters Mata and Sturridge, or backups Malouda and Kalou -- don't act as true wingers. Although Mata supplies 2.0 successful crosses per match -- which is good for 9th in the league -- he tends come in and float centrally in the space between the lines. Sturridge looks to cut in the from the right and shoot on his stronger left-foot -- as his team-leading 3.1 shots per game indicates. While Cole is a decent crosser of the ball on his day, the rest of Chelsea's full-back are poor at it. Thus, teams have figured out to clog things in the middle for Chelsea and force them to play on the flanks.
When Drogba is on the pitch, this aerial route can actually be a threat since he knows how to get on the end of and attack crosses. However, with the Ivorian gone, Chelsea's center-forward is Torres -- a player who prefers to run onto passes played into space and through the channels. It will be important for United to track Mata's movement so that he doesn't get free in the space between the lines -- from here, he's capable on supplying continual through balls for Torres to run onto. Higher up the pitch for United, their midfielders will need to be quick in closing down Chelsea's midfielders so that their easiest out ball is a pass swung out wide to their full-backs.
* How high up the pitch will United play?: One way for United to help prevent Mata from finding space between the lines is to play higher up the pitch so that they can minimize the space between their back four and midfield. This would help funnel the Spaniard into a more compact space and he would be easier to close down for United. One of the reasons the reverse fixture (Tactical Review: Manchester United 3-1 Chelsea) was such an open affair was that both sides decided to have a go.
Beyond that though, both sides exposed themselves with the space that they allowed their opposition to attack in. United's central-midfielders that day -- Anderson and Fletcher -- were constantly too far away from their center-backs and this resulted in too big of a gap for Chelsea's attackers -- most specifically, Mata who had 6 key passes (defense-splitting) that day. As for when Chelsea was defending, their high-line simply made them vulnerable when balls were played in behind their defenders. When Terry and Ivanovic got wary of Chicharito's pace, the Mexican was able to stretch Chelsea vertically at those times and this created space underneath for Rooney.
Will United's back four look to position themselves higher up the pitch in order to limit the space between the lines? The risk in this is that there would be more space in behind for Torres to use his pace so that he can beat United's defenders to through balls played through the channels. If Rio starts, this most certainly is not a strategy United would want -- nor likely -- to implement as the once pacy center-back is now vulnerable on the turn. If Evans and Smalling are the center-back pairing, then this is a tactic United could possibly use -- even if it's only for small stretches of the match when Fergie has his side press Chelsea higher up the pitch.
* Antonio Valencia vs. Chelsea's deputising left-back: This is an obvious match-up to highlight since Valencia has been unplayable for the past month while Chelsea's deputy for Cole will be seen as a weak link on the pitch. I'll keep this brief. This is the avenue that United might look most to when they attack. Perhaps though, Chelsea will play in a 4-2-3-1 shape and in a double-pivot, Villas-Boas can use two deep-lying midfielders. On Valencia's side of the pitch, the use of Romeu as one of the double-pivots could potentially allow for him to provide inside cover.
KO: Sunday 4:00pm GMT, 11:00am EST | Stamford Bridge
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), Fox (U.S.A.)
Referee: Howard Webb
Odds: Chelsea 31/20, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 17/10
TBB Predicition: Chelsea 1-2 Manchester United
WAGNH Prediction: Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United