Manchester United will be in east London on Saturday evening for a FA Cup Round 3 tie against West Ham United. These two side have met once already this season in late November during a Premier League clash at Old Trafford when Robin van Persie scored just 33 seconds after the match's beginning. After that electric start, highly paid footballers ran around the 'Theatre of Dreams' for 90+ minutes but nothing worth noting happened. 1-0 it finished to the Red Devils. Surely, tomorrow night, the famed magic of the FA Cup can top that spectacle. United have not won the FA Cup since their 2004 defeat of Millwall (you're welcome West Ham).
Form Guide: United enter the weekend top of the league table with 52 points from 21 matches and perhaps most importantly, with a seven-point advantage over nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. They've also gone unbeaten in their past nine league matches -- this includes eight victories on English soil and a draw in Wales to Swansea City.
WEST HAM UNITED
Form Guide: West Ham currently sit 11th in the league table with 26 points from 20 matches. Big Sam's side most recent match occurred when they emerged victorious versus Norwich City on New Year's Day. Prior to that though, they suffered defeat thrice from four matches. Overall, it's been a solid campaign for the Hammers but their overall form has dipped as of late.
United: There will be rotation after the recent crowded festive fixture list as the likes of Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Jonny Evans, and David de Gea started every match during that time. Each of those three outfield players will likely be rested as might the goalkeeper. If the latter is rested, expect Anders Lindegaard to deputise in goal. The back four is likely to consist of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic, and Alexander Buttner.
In midfield, Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa have already been tipped to start and either Paul Scholes or Darren Fletcher is likely to join them in the center of the park. In the wide areas, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck are rested so each could get roles there. Up front, if Robin van Persie is rested, then the in-form Javier Hernandez could play ahead of Kagawa. A midfield diamond is also possible as well.
West Ham: After Saturday's match, Sam Allardyce's side don't play again until the following weekend. However, because his squad is obviously not as big as United's, it's uncertain how many players he will rest for this FA Cup tie. Big Sam, though, in his pre-match press conference, has hinted that he'll field a strong side.
In goal, the No.1 is Jussi Jaaskelainen and in front of him in central-defense, the first-choice pairing is Winston Reid and James Collins. Either James Tomkins or Guy Demel can be expected at right-back while Joey O'Brien is the clear first-choice left-back.
In central-midfield, Mark Noble is a clear first-choice player and he's likely to be partnered by either Gary O'Neil or Jack Collison. Ahead of the deep central duo is likely to be captain Kevin Nolan but the newly signed Joe Cole is possible. The latter is also in contention for one of the two wide spots, as are Matthew Jarvis, Matthew Taylor, and Ricardo Vaz Te. Up front, Carlton Cole is anticipated.
Going in-depth with tactics is somewhat pointless because it's uncertain how weakened each side will be when considering possible squad rotation for this FA Cup tie. Ferguson, in particular, is likely to choose his starting XI based on who needs a rest and who needs a game rather than filling players in to fit a particular shape. Nevertheless, I'll simply repeat two of the tactical keys from the preview we provided prior to November's league match. Keep in mind, though, Carroll and Diame are out but the basic principles for West Ham are likely to remain the same on Saturday at Upton Park.
* The basics of West Ham: This is a typical Big Sam side as West Ham are very direct and they use a big center-forward, Carroll, up front as the pivot in attack. It's hardly surprising that the Hammers, along with Stoke City, are far and away the leaders in the Premier League in aerial duels won. Their passing accuracy (76.3% success rate -- 16th in the league) is obviously hindered by the wave of long balls they send forward but possession is not important to them (44.5% average -- 14th in the league). When West Ham do have the ball though, they prefer to swing passes out to the flanks so that wide players can send in crosses for Carroll. If they're not able to keep the ball, they then look to punt the ball long for Carroll while midfield runners, such as Nolan and Diame, try to get forward in support.
Noble is actually pretty decent on the ball and it is he that is able to give his side a calm presence at times. His 55.2 passes completed per game are far more than anyone else on the squad (right-back O'Brien is second with 31.3). The midfielder is capable of sweeping the ball out wide, aiming a long ball towards Carroll, or moving out wide to create overloads near the flank (7.1 cross attempts per game at a 24% success rate). Closing him down and forcing other West Ham players on the ball should be a focus for United as this will make them more predictable -- route one.
Diame is the energetic and combative player in the center of the park as evident by his 4.2 tackles and 2.1 fouls per game. In fact, as a whole, West Ham are a combative side -- their 20.6 tackles per game are 6th in the league and their 13.9 fouls per game ranks second most. Jarvis can be a handful on his day and it'll be important for United to limit his influence as he's a key source of crosses from the left-side.
* Winning the second ball: There is a plan to this 'route one' style of sending the ball long for a big target forward. The key isn't necessarily winning the initial aerial duel against Carroll, instead, as Michael Cox points out, the battle for the second ball is hugely important. Specifically, it's Nolan that does so well to collect these balls (he's their leading scorer with 5 goals while Carroll just scored his first this past weekend) but the wingers and Diame getting forward helps as well. When one of United's center-backs goes up to challenge Carroll for the initial ball, the other center-back needs to be intelligent with positioning in almost a sweeper sort of role. Ferguson may want to opt for a midfield trio so that he has a deep-lying central-midfielder near Nolan and two others to track the runs of Diame and Noble from deep. Tracking these midfield runners and beating them to the second ball will be hugely important for United. Effective clearances are a must as well.
KO: 5:15pm GMT, 12:15pm EST | Upton Park
Live TV: ITV1 (U.K.), FOX (U.S.)
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Odds: West Ham United 4/1, Draw 14/5, Manchester United 8/13