Manchester United will be in North London on Sunday for what manager Sir Alex Ferguson describes as a 'massive game' versus Tottenham Hotspur. The reverse fixture at Old Trafford occurred way back in August when goals from Danny Welbeck, Anderson, and Wayne Rooney propelled United to a 3-0 defeat of Spurs in an open game. This was exemplified by the two sides combining for 23 shots on target that day -- the most in a Premier League match this season. United's victory allowed them to extend their unbeaten streak to 21 games against Spurs -- 16 of which have been wins for Sir Alex's sides.
Form Guide: United come into the match sitting 2nd in the Premier League table with 61 points through 26 matches. The champions trail leaders Manchester City by two points. Since a January 4 league defeat by Newcastle United, the Red Devils have shown good form by going unbeaten in their following six league matches -- a 3-3 away draw against Chelsea FC are their only points dropped in that span. The past weekend saw the ageless Ryan Giggs mark his unfathomable 900th appearance at the club with a stoppage time winner at Norwich City. United have also earned passage to the third round of the Europa League after their two-legged defeat of Dutch giants Ajax.
Team News: Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic are unavailable for the remainder of the season while Tom Cleverley, Antonio Valencia, and Anders Lindegaard have been ruled out for this match. Chris Smalling is also a doubt after a nasty blow to the head while on England duty during the midweek. Michael Owen and Anderson have recovered enough from their injuries to resume training with the first-team but their status for Sunday is uncertain. Wayne Rooney is expected to return after recently missing matches for both club and country due to illness. (Manchester United Team News Report)
Form Guide: Spurs come into the match sitting 3rd in the table with 53 points through 26 matches. Prior to their 2-5 North London derby defeat by Arsenal FC last weekend, Harry Redknapp's side had gone five successive matches unbeaten in all competitions. The North Londoners face a FA Cup Round 5 replay at the upcoming midweek due to their scoreless draw away to League One side Stevenage on February 19.
Team News: Recent England captain Scott Parker is out for this tie due to his sending off last weekend at the Emirates. The availability of Gareth Bale, Kyle Walker, and Rafael van der Vaart is in question as well due to each player missing their midweek international ties for their respective countries. Spurs captain Ledley King is likely to play but he was substituted off last weekend when he felt his hamstring. (Tottenham Hotspur Team News Report)
United: The in-form David de Gea is the unquestionable No. 1 right now while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have been first-choice as of late at center-back. If Ferdinand's back flares up on him again, Phil Jones will be the choice to deputise with Smalling likely out. It will either Rafael or Jones at right-back and Patrice Evra will wear captain's armband while deployed at left-back.
Michael Carrick has played every single minute of Premier League action since a mid-November clash with Swansea City and he is nearly certain to start here. If a two-man central-midfield is deployed, then either Giggs or Paul Scholes is likely to partner Carrick. Rooney is probable to play a withdrawn role up front from either Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Nani is a strong candidate to start on right flank in attack while Park Ji-sung and Ashley Young are in contention on the opposite left flank.
Spurs: There's little doubt that Brad Friedel will be between the posts at White Hart Lane while Benoit Assou-Ekotto is the clear first-choice at left-back. If either Walker or King are not deemed fit to start, then Michael Dawson likely comes into the starting XI at center-back. If Walker is out, then Younes Kaboul is probable to slide over to right-back from center-back while Dawson would deputise at center-back. Dawson would simply be a potential like-for-like cover for King if the captain is not fit to start.
Luka Modric is an automatic selection in the center of the park and he will be partnered by either Sandro or Jake Livermore. Both of the latter two could start alongside Modric as well if Redknapp elects to use a midfield trio. Emmanuel Adebayor is likely to start up front and if he has a partner, former United striker Louis Saha is in contention to start. If Bale is fit, he will deployed either on the left or he will have a free role behind a lead striker. If the Welshman is not fit to start, then either Danny Rose or Niko Kranjcar will deputise for him. On the right flank, Kranjcar, Aaron Lennon, and van der Vaart are in contention. The latter could also play a withdrawn role from a striker in a 4-4-1-1 shape.
* What approach will Spurs take?: Last week versus Arsenal saw Redknapp try two different systems. In the 1st half at the Emirates, Spurs were deployed in a 4-4-2 shape with Adebayor and Saha up front. The movement of the strikers was good and their side's direct and high-tempo approach caused the Gunners some trouble. However, Arsenal's spare man in the middle -- which is natural advantage for a 4-3-3 shape against a 4-4-2 -- allowed them to control the 1st half despite Spurs' dangerous breaks at speed. Perhaps as a result of this, Redknapp came out in the 2nd half in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1ish shape. This allowed Spurs to compete better in the center of the park but their attack became stagnant due to a lack of width and creative ideas in this functional system. Spurs ability to compete better was actually used against them as Arsenal -- particularly Theo Walcott -- broke at speed and it was the Gunners that recorded a famous 5-2 victory as a result.
Is choosing between these two systems the conundrum that Redknapp faces as he ponders his selection choices? Could he instead use a 4-4-1-1 system with van der Vaart in the hole? With Parker unavailable to break up attacks, perhaps Spurs decide to use another player in the center of the park so that they can attempt to establish control in the center of the park. If the attack sputters again, Redknapp will have all sorts of attacking alternatives in van der Vaart, Lennon, and Saha that will allow him a plethora of system options if an adjustment is needed. With the propensity that United's full-backs have at times at being caught out -- particularly Evra -- a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system may be the reasonable one to start with.
* What approach will United take?:
It is likely that United deploy their typical 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish shape at White Hart Lane -- especially if the industrious Rooney makes a return. It's probably better to describe roles of each player rather than try to define United's shape with a specific formation. When Scholes and Carrick are deployed together -- along with Rooney in withdrawn role -- then the shape resembles a 4-2-3-1 with the two midfield maestros positioned deep in 'double-pivot' sort of roles. This approach generally has United attempting to control the match through calm possession. When it's Giggs that partners Carrick in the center, the shape is more a 4-4-1-1 -- with Rooney involved again due to his industry -- as the Welshman has more freedom to get forward and interchange with United's left-winger -- usually Park in this situation.
The alternate shape that United could use is the 4-3-3/4-5-1 that Fergie has often used in 'big' matches -- especially away. However, this is a system he has used less over the past season and a half due to his talisman's preferred withdrawn role in attack. If Rooney is out though, this is a shape that Fergie could revert to so that his team isn't overrun in the center of the park if Spurs put an extra man there. Welbeck is showing signs that he can lead the line as a lone striker.
If Rooney plays, the approach is likely predictable -- a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish system that will try to gain control of the match through possession. The creation of goalscoring chances then likely would be dependent on Rooney through the middle from the space between the lines and from creative wingers such as Nani and Young.
KO: 4:10pm GMT, 11:10am EST | White Hart Lane
Live TV: Sky Sports (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.A.)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
SB Nation Tottenham: Cartilage Free Captain
Odds: Tottenham Hotspur 15/8, Draw 23/10, Manchester United 6/4
TBB prediction: Tottenham Hotspur 2-3 Manchester United