After being eliminated from their fourth competition this season, Manchester United resume play in the one competition that remains for them this season -- the Premier League. On Sunday afternoon, the Red Devils have a chance to go four points clear of title-contending rival Manchester City when they travel to Molineux for a clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers. During the reverse fixture in December, United comfortably won 4-1 at Old Trafford after a brace each for Wayne Rooney and Nani. It was this same fixture last season in February 2011 when Wolves handed United their first league loss of that season.
Form Guide: After last weekend's 2-0 defeat of West Bromwich Albion, and after City's defeat by Swansea City, United moved to the top of the table for the first time since October. Sir Alex Ferguson's side has 67 points through 28 matches -- one more point than City. Since successive league defeats at around the new year, United have gone 9 league matches unbeaten with 8 of those being victories. Their most recent continental match came at the midweek when they were defeated 1-2 by La Liga side Athletic Bilbao in Europa League competition -- which ultimately resulted in elimination from their second European competition this season.
Team News: Darren Fletcher and captain Nemanja Vidic remain unavailable for the remainder of the season due to illness and injury, respectively. Anders Lindegaard and Anderson have been ruled out for this match as well. The availability of Michael Owen, Nani, and Phil Jones is also in question. The latter apparently has the flu.
Form Guide: Wolves are in a five-way battle to avoid one of the three relegation spots. As a result of their struggles, Mick McCarthy was recently sacked as manager and Terry Conner has taken the reigns for the remainder of the season. Wolves currently sit second-bottom in the table with only 22 points from 28 matches. They have only emerged victorious once during their last 16 matches in all competitions. The most recent one was a 0-2 home league defeat by relegation rival Blackburn Rovers.
United: David de Gea is certain to start in goal while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are the expected center-back pairing. Chris Smalling is possible to deputise if Fergie feels the need to rest Ferdinand after playing twice during the past week. Patrice Evra is expected at left-back while any of Smalling, Rafael, or Fabio is possible at right-back. In midfield, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick are probable and they could be flanked by any two of Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung, or Antonio Valencia. Up front, Wayne Rooney is certain to start if fit and he most likely would be partnered by either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito).
Wolves: Wayne Hennessey is the No. 1 while any two of Bassong, Roger Johnson, Christophe Berra, and Richard Stearman are possible at center-back -- the latter two have been the preferred choices for Conner as of late. The Wolves boss could deploy either two or three in the center of the park and the players in contention there are David Edwards, David Davis, and Jamie O'Hara. Matthew Jarvis is the automatic choice on the left flank when fit while Steven Fletcher and/or Kevin Doyle can be expected up top. There doesn't appear to be a settled first-choice player on the wide right -- any of Doyle, Michael Kightly, or Kevin Foley are possible.
* Contain Jarvis - Without a doubt, the Wolves attacker that presents the biggest threat is Jarvis. The left-winger averages 1.8 key passes per game (chances created) and completes 2.0 accurate crosses per game at a 29.9% success rate (30% is considered very good). In addition, no other side in the Premier League attacks more down the left side than Wolves (42% of the time on that side). During the reverse fixture, Jarvis continually got by his counterpart -- Smalling -- to successfully complete 5 crosses out of an impressively attempted 14. It was a cross of his that found Fletcher at the far-post when the striker climbed higher than Evra to head home the lone goal for Wolves at Old Trafford (defending against Wolves' aerial threat from this direction will be key by Ferdinand and Evra). Jarvis' pace was a problem for Smalling so it'll be interesting to see who Fergie selects at right-back. Jones apparently may not be available due to illness so will Rafael get the start since he offers more pace?
* What approach will Wolves take? - Wolves are comfortable playing in both a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 shape. Since Conner has taken over as manager, their shape has mostly been a 4-5-1 but it has 4-4-2/4-5-1 hybrid elements to it when both Dolye and Fletcher start together. What results is that Doyle positions himself high and narrow and near Fletcher up top while O'Hara tends to drift right. At Old Trafford, Wolves soaked up pressure for most of the match and get it tight in the back. Their outlet were punts long for Fletcher and Doyle. However, in our tactical review for that match, I noted how Wolves' competed better when they changed their system late in the 1st half:
"From minutes 0-32 when Wolves played with two in the center, they were completing 4.13 passes per minute at a 72.9% success rate. When Milijas came on and provided Wolves an extra man in the center from minutes 32-71, they completed an improved 4.79 passes per minute at a 79.2% success rate."
A 4-5-1 approach could potentially allow Wolves to compete better against United in the center of the park -- especially if one of United's two likely forwards doesn't consistently drop deep to help out when out of possession. Will it be a worry for United if their two midfield maestros -- Scholes and Carrick -- aren't able to dictate play? Over the past two months in league, United have increasingly become dependent on needing to control possession in order to feel comfortable in matches. Keep this in mind iif Wolves decide to deploy three central-midfielders.
* United's front four selection choices? - With Nani likely out, with Valencia still needing to find match-fitness and possibly form after just recovering from injury, and with the likes of Young, Giggs, and Park all starting at the midweek, who will Fergie deploy out wide versus Wolves? It was United's wingers in the reverse fixtures that were key players in attack -- along with Rooney -- as they continually created chances by coming in from the touchline. Welbeck could be deployed wide right -- as he was last weekend -- but he drifts inside and buzzes between the lines. Whoever United's left-winger is -- whether it is Young, Park, and Giggs -- they also tend to come inside as well. If this scenario occurs with Welbeck wide right, United will need intelligent off-the-ball movement in order to compensate for playing narrow. Fluidity in attack will be key. Marauding full-backs can provide width in attack too and stretch the opposition's defense. Perhaps because of this and the need to defend against Jarvis' pace, Rafa may be the ideal choice at right-back if he's not fatigued from an active full 90 minutes on Thursday.
KO: 1:30pm GMT, 9:30am EST | Molineux
TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Odds: Wolverhampton Wanderers 9/1, Draw 4-1, Manchester United 3/10
TBB prediction: Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-3 Manchester United