On Wednesday evening, Manchester United FC travel to London to clash with Chelsea FC in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie. United advanced past the first knock-out stage of the competition by defeating the French champions Olympique de Marseille 2-1 on aggregate. Chelsea earned passage to the quarter-final by comfortably defeating FC Copenhagen 2-0 on aggregate. The two sides met last month in a Barclays Premier League match when two 2nd-half goals by the Londoners enabled Chelsea to a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge. The two English giants also famously met in Moscow for the 2008 Champions League final; which United won 6-5 on penalties to be crowned champions of Europe for the club's third time.
Manchester United: United come into the match having won their past four matches in all competitions. The visitors top the Premier League with a seven point cushion over title-contending Arsenal FC, who have a game in hand, and also are semi-finalists in the FA Cup. The Reds are well positioned to chase the audacious ambition of a treble, a feat they famously achieved during the 1998-99 campaign.
Injuries are a major concern for the club. Owen Hargreaves, John O'Shea, Rafael, Anders Lindegaard, and Wes Brown all appear unlikely to be available for Wednesday's tie. Darren Fletcher has been battling a virus since before the recent two-week breaks for internationals and the Scot likely will not play. Rio Ferdinand has resumed training, but it appears that the center-back is targeting this upcoming weekend's match versus Fulham for his return. Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar missed the match versus West Ham due to an undisclosed injury; his status is uncertain. Anderson and Michael Owen have been absent recently due to injury but both appear to be healed and both were available this past Saturday at Upton Park.
Chelsea: The current champions of England likely suffered a knock-out blow in their ambitions to repeat after this past weekend's 1-1 draw at Stoke City. Now that Chelsea sit eleven points behind United, albeit with a match in hand, it appears that the Blues' ambition lies in lifting the European Cup for the first time in their club's history. It is no secret that owner Roman Abramovich desperately desires this trophy. After struggling this season in recent months, Chelsea have improved their form and the London side is unbeaten in their past six matches in all competitions.
The most important player that will be unavailable in this match for Chelsea is recent January transfer window signee David Luiz. The Brazilian center-back is unable to play for Chelsea in this competition after having already played for Benfica. 'Sideshow Bob' was instrumental in Chelsea's defeat of United a month ago and he also recently was named Premier League Player of the Month for March. On the injury front, it appears that Yossi Benayoun and Alex are set to return for Wednesday's match, however, neither are expected to be fit enough to start. Other than this, Chelsea appear to have a clean bill of health.
Tactical highlights from last month's match at Stamford Bridge:
* In the only league match-up of the current season between the two sides, the formation battle was '4-2-3-1' (United) vs '4-4-2' (Chelsea). Rooney was in a withdrawn and play-maker's role in the center of the pitch while Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick played deep as double pivots. Chelsea played an asymmetrical '4-4-2' with Ramires in a narrow right-midfield role and with Florent Malouda providing slightly more width on the left. (Here is my full tactical review from the match)
* United played very well in the 1st half. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez stayed high up the pitch and stretched the defense. By forcing the defense to play with a deeper line, Rooney had more space to come deep for the ball in between the defense and midfield lines. Because Michael Essien wasn't playing in a strict holding role, Rooney had time and space to create dangerous scoring opportunities for himself and his fellow attackers in this unoccupied area of the pitch.
* Scholes and Carrick were terrific in the match, particularly in the first-half. They did well to boss the match by dictating tempo in the center of the pitch, dealing with Chelsea's early pressing, and also by swing the ball around with their precise passing. United were strong in open play, while Chelsea seemed stagnant in it. However, the influence of United's double-pivots dwindled as the match wore on and this was the period in which Chelsea took over the match. Fatigue may have been a factor.
* Chelsea didn't have much width in the match, particularly on the right-side. Ramires played very narrow on the right and when United were in possession, Ramires essentially positioned himself as another central-midfielder. Branislav Ivanovic didn't provide much in the attack from his position at right-back; neither in ambition to get forward or with quality distribution. The space was there for him to exploit, perhaps even by design by United. Malouda drifted inward from his wide left position and Ashley Cole didn't get forward into the attack often enough because he was pinned back by Fletcher.
* It was a tale of two halves; with United controlling the opening one and Chelsea controlling the closing one. However, there wasn't really any tactical changes made by Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti. Didier Drogba influenced the match when he was brought on, but the substitution was a 'like-for-like.' As previously mentioned, Chelsea didn't impress in open play but the inclusion of Drogba let the striker yield his influence by using his strength and physicality to hold up the ball and allow time for others to join him in attack.
Projecting a Sir Alex Ferguson lineup is always a difficult task. The most likely shape for United is either a '4-2-3-1' or a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid. My guess is that the Gaffer will go with the former despite his usage of a '4-3-3/3-5-1' in recent seasons for "big matches." If Edwin van der Sar is unable to go again, expect Tomasz Kuszczak to deputize in goal for the Dutchman. The center-back pairing is likely to be skipper Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling. Expect to see Patrice Evra at left-back and Fabio at right back. Scholes and Carrick are likely to be central midfield pairing and as double-pivots if Fergie plays his side in a '4-2-3-1.' Antonio Valencia likely will be used as the wide player on the right in order to pin back Chelsea's Cole and expect to see Nani wide on the left. Rooney likely will play in a withdrawn play-making role and Chicharito can be anticipated as the striker.
Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti is likely to use a '4-3-3' or '4-4-2,' the latter of which could be either an asymmetrical shape or a midfield diamond. My guess is that is that Ancelotti will go with an asymmetrical '4-4-2.' Petr Cech will be in goal and his center-back pairing will likely be Ivanovic and John Terry. Right-back is likely to be Jose Bosingwa but Paulo Ferreira and even Michael Essien are possibilities here. Cole will be the left-back. Essien and Frank Lampard is my projection in the central midfield, although John Obi Mikel could be called upon in a strict holding role; this could prove to be a useful tactic to help combat with Rooney's desire to come deep for the ball. Malouda could be seen as the wide player on the left and Ramires may be deployed in the right-midfield in a narrow role. Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were starting striker tandem in Chelsea's most recent match at Stoke City, but its quite possible that Fernando Torres gets the start.
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:
* Valencia vs Cole: Chelsea generally doesn't play with a lot of width. Ramires is essentially a right-sided central-midfielder as the Brazilian's incredible work-rate alllows 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 the attack. Just as Valencia did last year and as Fletcher did last month, it's very important that whoever is deployed as the wide right player for United to pin back Cole and prevent him from getting forward.
* United's left-side versus Chelsea's right-side: There will likely be acres of space for both team's fullbacks to get forward on this side of the pitch. As mentioned, Ramires will be positioned centrally and whoever plays on the left for United in attack (Nani, Giggs, or Park) will likely look to cut inside when in attack. Thus, there will be plenty of space for the full-backs to come forward for overlapping runs. Evra is one of the best in the world in doing this and this should be area that is threatening for United. Chelsea will not have the same confidence in whoever they deploy as their right-back. Essien could be a surprise and interesting choice back there.
* Chicharito vs Terry: If the Mexican striker is called upon, he will need to stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally with his excellent movement and pace. The striker's pace could cause quite a bit of trouble for the England skipper. Chicharito's movement is vital in creating space for Rooney to move into so that he can maximize the space in between the Chelsea defense and midfield lines. Hernandez's movement is also vital in creating space for the midfield runners from wide positions (Nani, Valencia, Giggs, Park).
* Keeping possession: If Scholes and Carrick are deployed together, it will be essential that United do not lose the possession battle. Neither center-midfielder is known for their defensive tenacity, but their pairing often allows them to boss the midfield by keeping possession with their patient passing and thus preventing them from having to do much defensive work. If United are overrun in the first half by Chelsea in central midfield, Fergie likely will need to bring on Anderson or Park into the central midfield in order to give his side a little more bite.
* Chelsea's holding midfielder: Whoever Ancelotti decides on in the central midfield could prove to play a vital role in the outcome of the game. Mikel, who plays more as a true holding midfielder that shields his defense, might be a better choice than Essien. Rooney caused quite a lot of trouble for Chelsea in the last meeting when he would drop deep in between Chelsea's defensive and midfield lines. From this space, he continually found himself time to create and attack. Essien was deployed as the deepest midfielder, but he failed to stay goal-side of Rooney and generally left the United play-maker to Chelsea's center-backs.
* Quite honestly, I expect a relatively dull game. I think Chelsea will be focused on preventing as many away goals as possible and I think United will be very happy if they can leave the Bridge with a draw. Chelsea likely would be content with a 0-0 draw and United would likely be thrilled if they earned a 2-2 draw.
* Odds: Chelsea 23/20, Draw 11/5, United 13/5
* Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 United
* SB Nation's Chelsea site: We Ain't Got No History