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MATCH PREVIEW: Manchester United FC vs Chelsea FC (UEFA Champions League quarter-final)

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On Tuesday night, Manchester United FC will host Chelsea FC at Old Trafford for the return leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie. The two sides clashed this past Wednesday in the opening leg of their European battle; a match that saw United go ahead 0-1 at Stamford Bridge after a 1st half goal from Wayne Rooney. On the build-up to the goal, Michael Carrick launched an incisive 50-yard diagonal ball that found Ryan Giggs into space before the Welshman used a sublime first-touch to beat his marker and tee up Rooney for the clinical finish. United have the clear advantage heading into this European night, however, with these two sides being so familiar with each other and with the away side needing to chase goals, expect an open tie with blood and thunder. 

Manchester United: United come into the match having won their past six matches in all competitions. The home side currently top the Barclays Premier League with a seven-point cushion over their nearest title-contending rival Arsenal FC. The Reds also have a FA Cup semi-final derby looming versus on Manchester City on Saturday at Wembley. With a slight advantage over Chelsea in this current tie and with the Champions League final also being at Wembley, United chase the audacious ambition of a treble, a feat the club famously achieved in 1999. 

After having injuries be a significant concern for the club in the last few months, the news on that front as of late has been generally positive. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be unavailable due to long-term injuries. However, United's victory this past weekend versus Fulham saw the return of health to Anderson and John O'Shea as the duo both started the match. Rafael suffered a knee injury last week at the Bridge but United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said he expects the Brazilian right-back to be available for Tuesday evening's match. Edwin van der Sar has been battling a tweaked groin and despite missing United's last two league ties, the United No 1 is expected to be in between the posts at the Theatre of Dreams. Darren Fletcher has been battling a virus for the past month or so, severe enough to where he's been unavailable during that stretch. However, the Scot has returned to training and he may be fit enough for a substitute's role.  

*UPDATE* Rafael is considered doubtful for the match due to the knee injury suffered last week. Also, Fletcher did not train on Monday morning at Carrington.

Chelsea: The Londoners have two clear ambitions for their final run-in: (1) Finish top four in the Premier League so that they can qualify once again for Europe's grandest competition. (2) Lift the European Cup for the first time in club history; a feat that is the holy grail for owner Roman Abramovich. Chelsea's most recent match was a league one versus Wigan Athletic, a match-up that saw the Blues fail to impress in a 1-0 victory over the Lactics. 

Chelsea have little to be concerned about in regards to injuries. However, David Luiz is unavailable because the former Benfica defender is cup-tied. On the injury front, both Yossi Benayoun and Alex returned from injury to play in the past weekend's match versus Wigan. Chelsea appear to have a clean bill of health. 


Tactical highlights from last week's match at Stamford Bridge:

* The formation battle in simplest terms was a '4-4-2' vs '4-4-2'. However, United's shape had elements of a '4-2-3-1' with Rooney dropping deep so often and an acting as an auxiliary midfielder. Chelsea's shape was an asymmetrical '4-4-2'; Ramires was the right-midfield player but the Brazilian played extremely narrow in a 'shuttler's' role as he was nearly another central midfielder for Chelsea. In the 71st minute, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti made some substitutions and changed his team's shape to a '4-3-3'. Just a few minutes later, Fergie matched Chelsea's '4-3-3' shape. (Here is my full tactical review of the match)

* Chelsea may have been asymmetrical and staggered horizontally, but vertically there was three clear lines (defense, midfield, and attack). As a result, this left quite a bit of space in between the lines for United to exploit. Rooney continually moved into the space in between the defense and midfield lines and he was a continual threat from there. Carrick, from his position as a deep-lying playmaker, had time and space in between Chelsea's midfield and attack lines to influence the match with his superb passing and his terrific defensive positioning. Carrick had seven interceptions in the match, three more than any other player on the pitch according to Opta. Here's a chalkboard of Carrick's distribution courtesy of Total Football's iPhone app:


* A key area of battle was Chelsea's right-side of the pitch versus United's left-side. As mentioned, Ramires played extremely narrow. However, Park would also tend to drift towards the center of the pitch when United were in possession. Therefore, there was plenty of space for both side's full-backs to get forward into. Jose Bosingwa essentially acted as a wing-back in this match in getting forward to support the attack. His pace and his ambitious runs forward was Chelsea's most dangerous point of attack at the Bridge, however, the Portuguese full-back was inconsistent with the quality of his distribution. 

* United won the battle in the center of the pitch. Much of this was because Chelsea weren't staggered enough vertically in their positioning. Michael Essien wasn't dropping deep enough to provide a natural foil to Rooney's deep movements. Frank Lampard wasn't playing high enough the pitch to close down Carrick in his role as a deep-lying playmaker. In addition, when Chelsea were in possession, Rooney consistently got goal-side of Essien. Neither of Chelsea's two strikers consistently tracked back to help out in defending. Therefore, United bossed the center of the pitch through a sheer numerical advantage where it often was 3 v 2. 


Projecting Lineups:

United will either play in a '4-4-2/4-2-3-1' hybrid shape or a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid. Because of Rooney's recent success playing in a withdrawn role, I suspect that Sir Alex will play his side in the former shape. As long as Rooney continues to drop back and get goal-side of Chelsea's deep central midfielder, United can still combat a three-man central midfield if Ancelotti elects to play his side in a '4-3-3' shape. If van der Sar's groin is healthy, expect him in goal. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the likely center-back pairing and Patrice Evra will be the left-back. Expect either O'Shea or Rafael at right-back. Carrick and Giggs were a terrific central-midfield tandem last week and they'll likely be deployed there again. The tactical swiss-army knife Park Ji-Sung may be called upon again as the wide left player, but Nani and Giggs are possibilities there as well. Antonio Valencia appears to the wide right player again. Rooney will certainly be featured; he could lead the line in attack in a '4-3-3' or he can be a withdrawn playmaker in support of the striker in '4-2-3-1'. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is the recent first-choice striker, although Dimitar Berbatov, the Premier League's leading goal-scorer, could be called upon as well.

Ancelotti may choose to play his side in a number of possible shapes; '4-4-2 diamond', the same asymmetrical '4-4-2' from last week's game, or a '4-3-3'. The latter was effectively used versus United in last week's match for the final 19 minutes but the same shape proved to be ineffective in Chelsea's most recent league tie versus Wigan. In defense, it's nearly a guarantee that Petr Cech will be in goal, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry as the center-back tandem, and Ashley Cole at left-back. Right-back could be either Bosignwa, Paulo Farreira, or Essien. With a '4-3-3' being my best guess at Chelsea's shape come Tuesday night, the most likely midfield trio is Lampard, Essien, and Ramires. John Obi Mikel is a possibility as well in a holding role. Yuri Zhirkov got the nod last week, but I predict that Florent Malouda will be the wide attacking player on the left. Nicolas Anelka is possible on the right and either Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba could lead the line in attack. 

Be sure to check back with us as this projection will continually be updated as news comes in regarding injury and personnel issues. Here's the current projection:


Tactical keys to the match:

* Central Midfield: Much of this will be determined by the shape that both managers deploy their sides in. If United play with two central midfielders and with Rooney acting as a third auxiliary midfielder, then it will be essential for Chelsea to make adjustments. This is especially true if Chelsea play in a '4-4-2.' The Blues will then need to divide up roles between their two central midfielders; one in a pure holding role and one higher up the pitch closer to attack. If Chelsea play with three central midfielders, then the central players will be staggered vertically and provide natural positional foils to United's players; in that occurrence, it'll simply come down to individual match-ups. If United play in a '4-3-3' shape, this likely means they will play on the counter, a very possible strategy with a current one-goal lead. 

* United's left-side vs Chelsea's right-side: As highlighted earlier from last match, this proved to be a critical area of the pitch. Again, there likely will be acres of space for both side's full-backs to get foward into no matter who is deployed there in attack. Park, Nani, and Giggs all like to cut inside when United are in attack, thus this creates opportunity for Evra to make overlapping runs. Even in a '4-4-2', Ramires acts as a 'shuttler' on the right-side and he is very narrowly positioned. Thus, the entire touchline is available to exploit for Bosignwa to exploit. 

* Valencia vs Cole: Chelsea generally doesn't play with much width. Ramires is essentially a right-sided central-midfielder as the Brazilian's incredible work-rate allows him to cover a lot of ground. Malouda tucks in quite a bit from his wide left position. Thus, the onus is on Cole to get forward and provide width in attack from his full-back position, somewhat similar to Bosignwa in last week's match. Just as Valencia did to Cole in their match-ups this year and last, and as Fletcher did to Cole last month at the Bridge in a league match, it's very important that the wide right player for United (likely Valencia) pin back Cole and prevent him from consistently getting forward.

* Chicharito vs Terry: Although Chicharito has failed to score in his two starts versus Chelsea this year, he has influenced the matches with his pace and his excellent movement off the ball. His pace is troubling for the much slower Terry and this will be threatening if Chelsea play with a high line in defense. His intelligent movement was exhibited in his role in United's priceless away goal last week; the Mexican striker made a near-post run that dragged both center-backs near and this opened up space for a deeper lying Rooney to have a clear look at goal. Chicharito's horizontal movement is pivotal as well as this often creates space for midfield runners. 

* General strategy: With a crucial away goal for United goal, it wouldn't be surprising to see United try to absorb pressure, stay organized in defense, and then break into attack on the counter. United are aware that Chelsea need a minimum of two goals to win. If Chelsea are able to bag two goals in the match, United likely will have world-class attacking options for substitutes in Nani and Berbatov; this could prove vital if the match is forced to go 120 minutes. Keep this in mind: the quarter-final tie can only go 120 and to a possible shootout if Chelsea are up 0-1 after the full 90. Any other score-line will produce a result after the full 90. This also means that if United score at any point, the tie will end at the full 90 with a winner. 

* Odds: Manchester United 23/20, Draw 23/10, Chelsea 23/10

* Prediction: United 1-1 Chelsea (2-1 aggregate)

* SB Nation's Chelsea site: We Ain't Got No History