Manchester United stumble into their Premier League match on Saturday when they host recently promoted Norwich City at Old Trafford. The Canaries have been absent from England's top-flight for six years but they were able to earn automatic promotion after finishing as runners-up in the Championship last season. During this absence, these two sides have avoided each other in domestic cup ties and their most recent meeting came in April 2005 -- a match which resulted in a 2-0 victory for Norwich. After Saturday's tie, another international break will come about and neither side will be in action again until mid-October -- perhaps a welcomed occurrence for United when considering their injury woes.
The Reds come into the match top of the Premier League table over rival Manchester City based on goal differential. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson's side were cruising in the early portion of the season after scoring 21 goals in their first five league matches -- the result of which was a 100% league record. However, Stoke City earned a point from United last week after a 1-1 draw at the Britannia. In UEFA Champions League action, the European runners-up endured both midweek disappointment and relief in their match versus FC Basel on Tuesday. After jumping out to an early 2-0 lead behind a Danny Welbeck double, the Reds then conceded three goals. A 90th minute equaliser by Ashley Young rescued his side from a shocking home defeat -- the result of which has United behind both Basel and SL Benfica in Group C after two matches.
After the tremendous start to the season by United, complacency may have set in -- Fergie hinted as much after the Basel match. Or maybe the numerous injuries to the squad have become a hindrance. Or perhaps both. The headline injury is most certainly to talisman Wayne Rooney -- a hamstring issue likely keeps him out for this match and possibly next week as well for England in their Euro 2012 qualifier. Jonny Evans was a late scratch at Stoke with ankle injury and his status for this tie is uncertain. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) is uncertain also as he suffered a re-occurring dead leg last weekend in the early stages versus Stoke. Chris Smalling has been dealing with a groin issue and although it appears he is close to returning, he may be unavailable also. Captain Nemanja Vidic, Rafael, and Tom Cleverley all continue to be out with long-term injuries.
Norwich have shown well in the early-going after earning back-to-back promotions in the past two seasons -- their eight points after six matches is good for 9th in the table. In keeping with the theme of back-to-back success, the Canaries have won their past two league ties -- a 2-1 victory over Sunderland last weekend and a 2-1 away victory over Bolton Wanderers in the weekend prior to Sunderland. Norwich lost to Milton Keynes Dons in Round 2 of the Carling Cup so their main fight this season will be attempting to stay up and perhaps a surprise run in the FA Cup.
Manager Paul Lambert has a few injury concerns as well. James Vaughan, Daniel Ayala, and Elliott Ward are all possible to miss this tie due to knee injuries while Zak Whitbread is uncertain with a hamstring injury. United defender Ritchie De Laet is on loan to Norwich but due to an agreement, he is unexpected to play against his parent club.
David De Gea has performed well lately as the United No 1 and he is expected in goal. If both Evans and Smalling are unavailable or limited due to injury, then Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones will be the expected center-back duo. If either needs a rest, midfielder Michael Carrick or youngster Ezekiel Fryers are long-shot possibilities to deputise. Patrice Evra will play left-back while Fabio is the most likely right-back -- but Antonio Valencia is possible as well at right-back. With Rooney and Chicharito both possibly unavailable, Fergie may elect to use three central midfielders -- the candidates are Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, Anderson, Michael Carrick, and Park ji-Sung. Fletcher is likely to start after resting versus Basel and if two are only used in the the center of the park, Giggs may be the best guess to partner him. Carrick played the full 90 minutes versus Basel and Ando has been logging heavy minutes thus far this season. If three are used, Park is possible as well. On the flanks, Nani is almost on the right after not starting versus at Basel and the in-form Young is possible on the left. However, heavy minutes for Young may result in Park being deployed on the left with the England international possible as a late-match substitute. Any of Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Welbeck, or Chicharito are all possible up front -- throwing darts at a dart board and seeing who's name is hit is probably just as worthwhile as logically guessing on who starts.
Lambert has selected the same starting XI for his previous two matches. If this pattern holds, then his starting lineup would be the following: John Ruddy in goal with Russell Martin and Leon Barnett as the center-back tandem. Kyle Naughton at right-back and Marc Tierny at left-back would flank them. In this 4-3-3 shape, Bradley Johnson is the holding midfielder, David Fox a box-to-box midfielder, and Wes Hoolahan the central-attacking-midfielder. Steve Morrison would lead the line in attack and he would be flanked by Elliott Bennett on the right and Anthony Pilkington on the left. Andrew Crofts could also be in the center of the park and captain Grant Holt is a strong possibility to start up front as well. Lambert has used 4-4-2 often this season and also sprung a surprise on Chelsea FC when he played with a 3-5-2 shape -- a number of formations are possible but 4-3-3 seems most likely.
Odds: Manchester United 1/6, Draw 11/2, Norwich City 14/1
Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Norwich City