Chelsea vs. Manchester United preview

Alex_Ferguson_mars_1992

At least Chelsea's managers dress well; Photo by Ovynk Vik

The top two sides in the Premier League square off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as Man U visits Chelsea. The matchup could not come at a better time for the Blues, who are riding a remarkable run of home form and super hot striker Didier Drogba, face a severely depleted Man U defense that had been struggling even when healthy. A Chelsea win would put them five points clear of the scrum developing just below the top spot in the table. With reports coming today that Chelsea’s transfer ban has been suspended, more good news is likely to follow on Sunday.

New Manager Carlo Ancelotti has started to rebuild the home fortress created by Jose Mourinho at the Bridge. He sports a 100% home record in all competitions and Chelsea have not conceded a goal at home in that time since Stephen Hunt scored for Hull in the 28th minute on opening day, a run of eight consecutive shutouts. On the back of that strong defense, Drogba has rediscovered the scintillating form that has made him one of the game’s best strikers, scoring in 10 of his last 11 matches. He seems unstoppable at the moment and has struck up the best goal partnership in the league with last season’s top goal scorer Nicolas Anelka.

The Manchester United defense has looked very shaky and is clearly not what is was last season even when all its players are fit. Both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have been repeatedly torched this season, it may be a blessing in disguise for United that Ferdinand is out through injury and Vidic is a major doubt. Also missing for United is the under-rated Ji Sung Park, who plays the defensive wing position as well as anyone in the world and could be deployed to keep one of Chelsea’s attacking full backs at bay. With Ryan Giggs and Dmitar Berbatov also questionable with injuries, Manager Alex Ferguson faces a real dilemma about what kind of side he will be able to put out to counter Chelsea.

Given their injury woes and general poor central midfield play, Fergusson is likely to go with a 4-5-1 in the hopes of clogging the midfield and slowing down Chelsea’s attack. I bet that both Vidic and Giggs will play from the start, and the formation will look something like this:

Rooney

Giggs-Carrick-Scholes-Anderson-Valencia

Evra-Vidic-Evans-O’Shea

Van der Sar

Carrick and Anderson will likely sit a little deeper than Scholes, Valenica will have more reign to push up, with Giggs perhaps tucking in when Chelsea have the ball to add even more bodies to the midfield.

There is no reason for Ancelotti to change what’s been working so well, particularly at home. His only injury worry from his first XI is right back Jose Bosingwa, but Branislav Ivanovic is an able substitute, and even though he doesn’t provide as much attacking down the right as Bosingwa, he is a competent defender and Chelsea have plenty of attacking options. Their line up will probably look like this:

Anelka-Drogba

Lampard-Essien-Deco-Ballack

Cole-Terry-Carvalho-Ivanovic

Cech

Key Matchup: Obviously, Drogba (and Anelka) will be a handful for whoever plays in Man U’s defense. Both goalkeepers have had some shaky spells recently, with Cech especially looking weak on crosses and both having difficulties with set pieces. But with so many players for both teams in the center of the pitch, I think the key matchup is going to be Chelsea’s Ashley Cole vs. Man U’s Antonio Valencia.

If United are going to have any hope, Valencia has to have a big game. Strong attacking play can not only open some room for Wayne Rooney and create chances on the offensive end, it can nullify Cole’s forward runs, a critical element of Chelsea’s play. If there is a criticism of Ancelotti’s diamond midfield, it’s that it is very narrow, with regular central midfielders Lampard and Ballack supposedly occupying the flanks. Chelsea’s had this problem for years and they have usually survived it, at least in part because both their fullbacks are excellent going forward.

United’s defense and midfield have been poor by their standards so far this season, and Chelsea could out-muscle them with Essien, Ballack, Lampard, Anelka, and Drogba. But just as likely, Man U will adopt Rafa Benitez’s tactics and stifle the game in the middle of the pitch. In that scenario, which team wins the battle of the flanks will have the most chances and likely come out on top. The United fullbacks are unlikely to make too many forward runs, staying back to help out Johny Evans and a slowed Vidic. That leaves Valencia and Cole to do battle in the open field. My money is on Ashley Cole.

Prediction: A rather dull first half as the sides feel each other out and United clog the middle. Chelsea get on top in the second half and put a couple past Van der Sar. Chelsea 2 – United 0.

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