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A late penalty was the difference at Stamford Bridge, where Frank Lampard's 79th minute conversion saw Chelsea to a 2-1 victory over league-leading Manchester United. In match played with enough energy to match the prestige of the rivalry, Manchester United got a 30th minute goal from Wayne Rooney to open scoring. An early second goal tally from David Luiz equalized before Lampard saw Chelsea past United and into fourth place, extended a home winning streak over the Red Devils that dates back to 2002.
The first half was played in three parts, the two 4-4-2 set-ups alternating control of the match. Over the opening quarter hour, Chelsea looked the better side, able to come outside-in to threaten United, particularly down their left side. When United asserted some control over the next 15 minutes, Chelsea's opening looked like early match energy. In the 30th minute, that energy was forgotten, with United taking the lead.
After a spell where Chelsea had trouble getting out of their own half - giveaways by John Terry and Ramires leading to quick chances for the visitors - United found themselves in possession at the edge of the Chelsea third, Wayne Rooney standing above the ball. With Chelsea's line backing into their own area, Rooney was able to take a couple of touches toward the middle of the park before letting go of a 24-yard rocket, soundly beating Petr Cech inside the left post, giving United a 1-0 lead.
After a lull that allowed Chelsea to adjust to the match's new circumstances, Chelsea resumed the approach with which they started. Florent Malouda continued to find opportunities to threaten from the left, finding little resistance from a seemingly reverential John O'Shea.
But it was through the middle the Chelsea created their most threatening chance of the half. Fernando Torres drew a fortunate whistle in the 41st minute, giving Frank Lampard a chance from 27 yards out. The midfielder's shot forced Edwin van der Sar to lay-out for his save, the rebound going high but straight to Branislav Ivanovic at the far post. The defender couldn't muster the required control with his first touch, a ball off his stomach saved off the line by van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic.
The second half started more evenly, but it wasn't long before Chelsea had found an equalizer. A corner to the right of van der Sar's goal saw Frank Lampard play a ball through the area. On the second movement, David Luiz was left unmarked to the right of goal. When the ball eventually found him eight yards out, the young Brazilian half-volleyed a ball inside van der Sar's left upright, giving the `keeper no chance to prevent the equalizer.
The one hour mark saw the match's first change, with Nicolas Anelka giving way for Didier Drogba. The Ivorian was a controversial if unsurprising exclusion, with Carlo Ancelotti electing to keep the tandem that won last week in Copenhagen.
Drogba's first spell on the pitch met a match where the sides had evened-out play. The energy Chelsea carried from their equalizer had dissipated. Manchester United had not only started holding more possession, they'd created some moments of worry for their hosts, with Wayne Rooney looking dangerous probing left of center.
In the 70th minute, Alex Ferguson made his first set of changes. Javier Hernández gave way for Dimitar Berbatov, a like-for-like. In a more historic move, Ryan Giggs replaced Paul Scholes. The move shifted Darren Fletcher back to the middle, Nani to the right, but also tied Bobby Charlton for most league appearances by a United player.
In the 79th minute, after 25 minutes of relatively even play, Chelsea got the match's big break. Building an attack down their left, Didier Drogba drew John O'Shea in before flicking a ball wide to Frank Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder played the ball back toward Yurik Zhirkov (who had come on earlier for Florent Malouda). Zhirkov touched the ball past Chris Smalling before trying to run past the defender's slightly outstretched left leg. When the Russian went down, Martin Atikinson pointed to the spot, awarded a penalty kick Lampard blasted into the upper 90. With just over 10 minutes to go, Chelsea had taken their first lead, 2-1.
For five minutes after the goal, Chelsea searched for a second, their best chance seeing Vidic save a Zhirkov shot off the line. Soon after, Chelsea adopted a more conservative stance, settling-in to defend their lead. By that time, Alex Ferguson had used his last substitution, with Fabio da Silva coming on for the injured Patrice Evra.
Fabio nearly had an equalizer in the 87th minute. Wayne Rooney played in the left back, but by the time da Silva cut outside a recovering José Bosingwa (on in the 81st for David Luiz), Petr Cech come out to collect the ball.
In the third minute of stoppage time, United's last hope seemed to fade as Nemanja Vidic left the pitch. Already on a yellow, Vidic pulled down Ramires to the right of the penalty area. Atkinson again brandished a card, followed it up with a red, and sent the captain to the locker room. Vidic is now set to miss Sunday's match at Liverpool.
One minute later, Atkinson blew his whistle, this time ending the match. Manchester United was handed their second loss of the season, their lead atop the league staying at four. Chelsea, with their biggest victory of the season, passes Tottenham Hotspur for fourth place, moving within 12 of United.
After Wayne Rooney's blast after half an hour, it looked like it was going to be a long day at the office for Chelsea. They got back into the match with a great goal from David Luiz, and now, ten minutes from time, they have come back to take the lead...with a little help from Martin Atkinson. The referee granted Chelsea a penalty, which was converted by Frank Lampard, and Manchester United are now being forced to chase the game, 2-1 down.
The penalty came on a foul committed by Chris Smalling, playing due to injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Substitute Yuri Zhirkov drew it, cutting into the box and tripping over Smalling's leg. The decision was a harsh one on Smalling and United, but there definitely was contact and Smalling shouldn't have put himself in a position to force Atkinson into a difficult decision. It was a questionable call, but not an inherently wrong one. Frank Lampard stepped up to take the penalty and he blasted it straight down the center. Even if Edwin van der Sar did not dive to one side and put his hands exactly where the ball was going to be, he would have had an extremely difficult time stopping it.
Chelsea have scored a goal that will give themselves three points if the result stands, but it's just as much a goal for Manchester City and Arsenal as it is for the Blues.
David Luiz is a central defender in name and deployment, but his skills are certainly not limited to those normally possessed by men who play that position. He's scored Chelsea's equalizer against Manchester United following a set piece, but not directly from a set piece and not with his head. It was certainly far from the kind of goal typically scored by central defenders, but then again, David Luiz is far from a typical central defender. He's shown off his technical prowess by dribbling forward on a number of occasions, and he's started to pay back his hefty transfer fee with a great goal.
Following a set piece opportunity, but not so far afterwards that defenders had retreated to their normal positions, Michael Essien sent a cross into the box from a deep position, on the right flank. His ball went right to the penalty spot, where Branislav Ivanovic was standing. He headed the ball towards the back post, where Luiz was standing. The Brazilian defender hit a fantastic half volley into the back of the net, and Chelsea are now level at 1-1. They've been the much more ambitious of the two sides early in the second half, so one might say that their equalizer was deserved.
Chelsea FC came forward with more purpose since going behind to Wayne Rooney's stunning opener but did not find a way to put the ball in the back of the net before halftime. Manchester United were slightly fortunate to avoid conceding during the 40th minute goal-line scramble, and on first glance it looked like Chelsea may have even had a shout for handball on Nemanja Vidic during those frantic moments, but replays showed that the ball probably came off of the United captain's chest.
The hosts have been fairly direct throughout, and that continued in the closing minutes of the first half. However, a lack of precision in their longer passes and crosses has resulted in frustration for the Blues' fans, and Ashley Cole spurned a chance to cause United trouble from a free-kick just before the interval. Vidic had hacked Michael Essien down, receiving a booking for his troubles, just outside the penalty area, but the Chelsea left-back blazed his effort well over the bar (insert your shooting jokes here).
United have had slightly more of the ball than Chelsea, and their defensive right-sided combination of John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher has prevented the home side from creating many chances down that flank. Fernando Torres has been a largely peripheral figure, and Nicolas Anelka has been similarly disappointing. Chelsea seemed to get narrower as the half progressed until a few late surges down their left, but will have to stretch United across the pitch if they want to find an equalizer in the second half, and Vidic's booking for the tackle on Essien could yet prove significant.
It was an even half played in parts, with Chelsea looking the better in the first and third acts. But in the middle, Manchester United asserted control of the midfield, eventually created a chance for Wayne Rooney. From well outside the Chelsea area, Rooney beat Petr Cech in the 30th minute, giving United a 1-0 lead after the first half at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United started in the same 4-4-2 we saw on Saturday at Wigan, putting Darren Fletcher out to help with Florent Malouda and Ashley Cole. Early, the deployment seemed needed, with Chelsea building its first attack down United's right. A ball from Fernando Torres was put out by Nemanja Vidic for a corner, and when Frank Lampard's resulting cross was put into the net by Torrres, Stamford Bridge let out a muted roar. Most of the crowd had heard the referee whistle a foul.
Like Chelsea, United's initial attacks went down their left. Like United, Chelsea had bolstered that side, their 4-4-2 allowing them to start Ramires in front of Ashley Cole. Nani's first attempt to crack that side saw him dispossessed in the second minute. One minute later, a run from Patrice Evra couldn't out distance Ramires, who intercepted a Nani ball. Moments later, a Nani cross was intercepted by David Luiz, who sprung the Blues on the match's first real chance, Nicolas Anelka finding Florent Malouda at the top of the box for a shot swallowed by Edwin van der Sar.
Between that chance, the disallowed goal, and two dangerous balls from the right in the seventh minute, Chelsea had the better of play at the onset. By the eighth minute, players had started to settle into the match, more space was seen in midfield, and Manchester United started to string together passes for the first time in the match. But their play was less ambitious than containing, as if to drain the energy that Chelsea had brought from the dressing room. When a Nani shot in the 10th minute gave Chelsea a scare, appearing to have been hit into John Terry's left arm (with no reasonable penalty shot), United hinted they were ready to come into the match.
But even after United started their ascension, Chelsea was still able to generate chances. In the 12th minute, an attack built down the left found Michael Essien in the arc. Had the Ghanaian not slightly overrun the pass, allowing the ball to get caught in his feet, he may have been able to get-off a better shot. His left-footed toe-poke when innocently off a United player for an innocuous corner.
By the middle of the period, United seemed to have gotten the tempo under more control. Just before the 20-minute mark, the visitors enjoyed their first real run of possession, continuing to favor Nani's flank. With Michael Essien drifting over to support from midfield and United evening numbers with either Javier Hernández or Wayne Rooney, United's build-up met congestion at the edge of the final third.
In the 21st minute, United was able to break through that side to generate their first good chance. Nani beat his man to generate a cross 18 yards from touch, a ball that met an unmarked Rooney at the near post. The United striker elevated well but a little under the ball. His attempt to turn the ball on goal ended with him shank-ing his shot over the bar.
Despite missing the shot, Rooney was still proving to be United's most important player in attack, dropping deep into midfield to help the link-up play, driving into wide areas to support the build-up. In the 24th minute, Rooney race d15 yards into his own end, close to the level of Michael Carrick, to pick up a ball, dibble it into the attack half, and play a long give-and-go with Nani, a play that was broken up by Luiz. By the 26th minute of the half, the Rooney-Luiz battle was starting to establish itself as the game's best match-up.
One minute later, Luiz was again breaking up a Manchester United attack. A bad giveaway near the center circle by John Terry allowed Wayne Rooney to break United into the Chelsea third. The ball was played wide to Fletcher who sent a cross along the top of the six. But Luiz was there to clear the ball out and to the Chelsea left, though that did not dissuade Chelsea from giving the ball right back to United. A half hour into the match, United was starting to control the midfield. Chelsea, however, was dominating their own third.
Perhaps that's why United's first goal had to come from distance, four yards above the Chelsea arc. Wayne Rooney, in possession well outside the Chelsea penalty area, took a touch or two to his right, moving the ball to above the Chelsea arc, 24 yards from goal. Pulling-up and unloading with his right foot, Rooney lined a shot to Petr Cech's right, giving Manchester United a 1-0 lead after 30 minutes.
After four minutes adjusting to the new context of the match, Chelsea resumed the same tactic with which they opened the match. Florent Malouda had been dangerous on the left side, and in the 35th minute, the left midfielder generated another near-chance, whipping a cross around both John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher, forcing Chris Smalling to put the ball out of play.
In the 40th minute, Chelsea was given another chance to test Manchester United's suspect set piece defending, their first such chance since Torres's disallowed goal. A generous foul given 25 yards from touch to the right of goal was blasted on goal by Frank Lampard. Edwin van der Sar had to lay-out to save a shot he had trouble tracking through the crowd. The rebound went up in the air and toward Branislav Ivanovic at the far post. The Serbian was unable to control his redirection, leaving Nemanja Vidic to clear a ball played off his chest.
The play seemed to energize Chelsea, who continued to threaten by building attacks down their left side. In the 46th minute, though, a turnover in midfield allowed Chelsea to break toward United's line, forcing Vidic to take down Michael Essien 25 yards out, earning a yellow card. The resulting direct kick was put well over the ball by Ashley Cole, the last meaningful play of the first half.
While Manchester United seemed to control play in the middle of the period, Chelsea looked brighter at its onset and conclusion. With Malouda having a strong half down the left side, the Blues continuously turned United's defense. But it was Wayne Rooney's 30th minute rocket that separated the teams, United going into half up 1-0.
Chelsea FC looked sure to have their equalizer in the 40th minute of their game against Manchester United, but despite a couple of great chances in a matter of seconds, they have been denied. Edwin van der Sar produced a couple of great saves in that same matter of seconds, but if we're being honest, Chelsea should be level.
Frank Lampard created the opportunity with a terrific drive of a free kick from almost 30 yards out, forcing van der Sar into a sprawling save. Unfortunately for him, the ball fell to the feet of Branislav Ivanovic immediately after that save. It appeared that Ivanovic had a wide open goal to work with, but he somehow failed to put the ball into the back of the net. Maybe he thought it was too easy and hit the ball too casually, but in any event, van der Sar reached up and clawed the ball away while on his back, somehow denying Ivanovic the equalizer. The ball then bounced off a United defender before it was finally secured by van der Sar, completing his improbable triple save.
Though Chelsea got off to a fantastic start and were the better side for most of the first 15 minutes of the game, the second 15 minutes were all Manchester United. As they started to control the midfield and possession, their great play has finally paid off through a Wayne Rooney goal, putting them 1-0 up a half hour into the match. After a long goal drought, United's superstar appears to finally be finding his form, apparently only able to score through fantastic wonder goals.
The strike came from somewhere between 20 and 25 yards out, and while it was a stellar goal, Chelsea's defenders deserve some criticism for their failure to close Rooney down. David Luiz, John Terry, and Frank Lampard were all in the vicinity of Rooney when he unloaded his shot, with the last of those players being the most guilty. Lampard stood still and watched the ball for a couple of seconds before attempting to step in front of Rooney, but by then, it was too late. The United striker hit a powerful low drive to the right of Petr Cech, putting his shot into the back of the net just inside the post. The shot was perfectly placed with great power, and United have a deserved 1-0 lead.
If anyone feared a cagey, tentative encounter - and I sincerely hope that's no one after seeing the lineups - their fears were quickly calmed with a quick start that included a couple of chances for Chelsea FC. In the second minute, a Fernando Torres volley off of a corner kick went into the back of the net off of the underside of the crossbar, but his goal was disallowed due to the man who headed the ball to him, David Luiz, tugging at the shirt of Nemanja Vidic. Two minutes later, Florent Malouda had a good shot saved by Edwin van der Sar. The Blues have been very ambitious, hardly allowing Manchester United to have a sniff.
The Red Devils, though they have the skill of Paul Scholes and the flair of Nani, are somehow lacking in skill and flair. Or maybe we've all talked ourselves into this myth because we expect so much more from Manchester United? In any event, Michael Carrick isn't providing much in the way of attacking, while Darren Fletcher is about the least dynamic attacking right midfielder you're ever going to see. This isn't a knock on Fletcher, who is a quality player. It's just not his position.
For those of you wondering about the little pea, Javier Hernandez, he looks like he belongs in this game. While some may have significant disagreements with Alex Ferguson's tactics, he can hardly be criticized for picking Chicharito. He's looked pretty good so far.
Chelsea may be set to use the same 4-4-2 that got them a 2-0 win last week in Copenhagen. That means Didier Drogba will again be on the bench, as will Mikel John Obi. Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka look set to start up top. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien will have to hold down central midfield.
At the back, there is one change. David Luiz, cup-tied in Champions League, is back in the team, set to start to the right of John Terry in central defense. That pushes Branislav Ivanovic to right back, with Ashley Cole completing the line in front of Petr Cech.
At the wide midfield positions, Florent Malouda will start on the left, probably playing a more advanced role than his right-sided counterpart, Ramires. With the Brazilian on the right, Chelsea will be able to mitigate the benefits Patrice Evra can provide when he pushes forward.
Chelsea, Starting XI: Cech - Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole - Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Malouda - Anelka, Torres
Bench: Turnbull, Bosingwa, Zhirkov,
Mikel Ferriera, McEachran, Kalou, Drogba
Mikel was a late scratch, being replaced at the last moment by Paulo Ferriera.
Surprisingly, Alex Ferguson has chosen the same team that started this weekend against Wigan, the first time United has been unchanged in 165 games. That means Javier Hernández, coming off two Saturday goals, gets the call ahead of Dimitar Berbatov for today's Premier League match with Chelsea. Wayne Rooney joins up, as does Nani, who may be deployed left, if Ferguson plays as he did this weekend. Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are all in the starting XI, with Fletcher possibly set to shade right.
At the back, John O'Shea gets the nod over Rafael da Silva, though that was expected. He'll be next to Chris Smalling, started for the injured Rio Ferdinand. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra start at the left side of defense, in front of Edwin van der Sar.
Manchester United, Starting XI: van der Sar - O'Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra - Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Nani - Rooney, Hernández
Bench: Berbatov, Giggs, Gibson, Rafael da Silva, Fabio da Silva, Kusczcak
Earlier today, Kevin McCauley walked us through Chelsea's possible formations for today's match with Manchester United. As we noted last night, part of the difficulty of previewing today's match is having little idea how the Blues and United will set-up. While Chelsea has used three different formations over the last month, Alex Ferguson is constantly changing his approach, tailoring his set-up for each match. Predicting what he'll do today mean jumping into his head and translating his thoughts out of that rough Scottish. I don't have that tool in my arsenal.
So instead of trying to predict where Ferguson will go, let's just lay-out the options. Let's start our survey by looking back to last season, considering it Ferguson's default disposition.
While United did fail to get a point against Chelsea in 2009-10, they performed reasonably well - a couple of near-coin flip matches against the eventual league champions. With some noting "breaks" Chelsea got near the end of those matches, Ferguson may elect to take his chances with a similar set-up, should he believe United is more likely to win a match that plays out similarly.
If that's the case, we could see a look very similar to last Wednesday's in Marseille. Then, Wayne Rooney was forced out to left wing because of Ryan Giggs's absence. With Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia also out, Ferguson had to choose between displacing Rooney or starting Gabriel Obertan, provided he was set on going 4-5-1. He went with the better player, even if that meant playing him farther from goal.
If Giggs's fitness demands the same today, Dimitar Berbatov will start up top. Nani will be on the right, and the midfield should be Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.
At the back, Edwin van der Sar will be in goal. Patrice Evra will start on the left, with a pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling in the middle. John O'Shea is likely to start on the right, though we could see Rafael da Silva, whose playing time has seen a significant increase this season. If da Silva is chosen, it will be his first league start against Chelsea.
With the issues at the back remaining the same regardless of formation, we move on to a more ambitious option:
The last time Manchester United defeated Chelsea (January 2009), Ferguson chose Berbatov, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a deployment that was 4-4-2 by the book, 4-3-3 in practice. Today, United could do the same, starting Nani in what was Ronaldo's roll, filling out midfield with three of Fletcher, Giggs, Scholes and Carrick.
However, it's worth noting how truly long ago that was. Luiz Felipe Scolari was Chelsea's manager. The Blues played 4-5-1 that day, with Joe Cole and Deco in the wide positions. In addition, the match was at Old Trafford. Manchester United hasn't won at Stamford Bridge since 2002, pre-José Mourinho.
This would be a very ambitious approach, but against a wounded Chelsea, it might work, particularly given some of the formations Ancelotti's likely to deploy. But what's more likely: Ferguson going to West London and being content to get a point? Or, him going for it?
United can play any of these three options while starting the exact same personnel. Giggs's ability to play wide as well as centrally (as well as Rooney's flexibility between central forward and wing) mean there are very few selections Ferguson can made which will reveal his approach.
Take the 4-3-3 we just alluded to. With the exact same personnel, United becomes a 4-4-2 depending on Nani's responsibilities. If Nani's playing deeper, helping John O'Shea with the likes of Ashley Cole and (potentially) Florent Malouda), the deployment will seem like four midfielders. If he's allowed to let Cole run while United relies on the rangy Darren Fletcher for support (and Ryan Giggs augmenting the central midfield), Nani's function will mimic a winger in a 4-3-3 variant.
While the 4-4-2 seems like a nice middle ground between a five or three midfielder approach, it may be the worst approach, particularly if Chelsea goes 4-3-1-2. The two other options give United a third midfielder in the middle. Where Nicolas Anelka would play an attacking midfielder/withdrawn striker in the 4-3-1-2, countering with a 4-4-2 would put United at a significant numerical disadvantage, employing two wide midfielders against a formation that deepmphasizes width.
But this is where the flexibility of United's personnel may help. If they start in a 4-4-2, they could switch on the fly. The fact that Ferguson has no set formation means quick changes in set-up won't put players in unfamiliar roles. If any of Ferguson's choices aren't working, we could see a shift at halftime, if not sooner.
Because predicting what Alex Ferguson will do is such a great idea.
Rio Ferdinand will be the most important absence from Tuesday's Chelsea-Manchester United match, though Red Devils supporters have become accustomed to missing England's captain. The 32-year-old defender's made only 20 appearances this season, 15 in the English Premier League (United have played 40 all-competition matches). This is coming off a season where Ferdinand appeared in only 13 of 38 league matches.
Ferdinand's calf injury means Chris Smalling will start to the right of Nemanja Vidic, the 21-year-old having seemingly passed Jonny Evans on Alex Ferguson's depth chart. That may not be a fair assumption, as Evans is also not available for this match, nursing an ankle problem. However, of late, Smalling has been more impressive that Evans. He has started each of the last three matches, all shutouts for United (albeit against Crawley Town, Olympique de Marseille and Wigan Athletic).
Despite Smalling's impressive performances, no Red Devils supporters will be happy to see a squad without Ferdinand, a trepidation bore out by the numbers.
In matches in which Ferdinand has appeared this season, United is allowed 59 percent fewer goals, seeing their average conceded fall from 1.10 goals per match to 0.65. That total's generally be accumulated against superior competition, as even when he's healthy, Ferdinand is sometimes rested against particularly weak opponents. For example, Ferdinand played in only one of United's three Carling Cup matches, starting against Scunthorpe United as part of his recuperation from this summer's knee injury.
Hinting at the elevated level of competition, United's goals per match have gone down when Ferdinand play. United has had only three matches where they scored more than two goals while Rio played. Overall, the team averages 1.8 goals per match when Ferdinand is in the team. That number increases by 22 percent when he's out, climbing to 2.2 goals per match.
Strangely, and possibly another reflection of the quality of competition, Manchester United are accumulated fewer points per match when Rio plays. While the Red Devils are undefeated in 2010-11 with their star defender, they're only averaging 1.8 points per match, thanks in large part to eight draws in 20 games. Though they have lost twice when Ferdinand's been out, Manchester United has won 14 times, giving them 2.2 points per match.
(And oddly, when Rio's out, United's scored 36 goals and accrued 36 points. When he plays, 44 goals and 44 points)
Overall, Manchester United is 26-12-2 on the season. They've scored 80 goals while allowing 35.
Going into their match against Manchester United, Carlo Ancelotti's possible squad selection is the biggest story coming out of the Chelsea camp. The Blues' formation and team selection has changed considerably under Ancelotti, and their recent transfers have further complicated that selection. Previewing a game and making an educated prediction is almost impossible when one has no idea how two teams are going to line up. There is some serious mystery associated with both teams, but Chelsea present considerably more questions than the Red Devils.
While the Spaniard has yet to look like a £50 million man, he has shown some flashes of the skill that made his price so high. It was almost comical that he was unable to score against FC Copenhagen in the UEFA Champions League; I can't recall seeing a player get so unlucky.
While Torres hasn't scored in a Chelsea shirt yet, there are a couple of undeniable truths here: Torres has a great scoring record against United, and he's absurdly talented. He can play as the central striker in a 4-3-3 formation or with a partner in a 4-4-2 diamond setup easily. He might even work as the wide right forward in a 4-3-3 cutting inside, if Ancelotti feels like getting really adventurous. He's not scoring right now, but he's still Torres. He's going to start scoring eventually, and he scores against United.
This depends on how much emphasis Ancelotti puts on athleticism, shutting down counter-attacks through the middle, and the need for a ball-winner in the center of midfield. Considering United's probable team selection and style of play, it seems like the answer will be "not much." Mikel is often misrepresented as nothing but a tough tackling bully when he's actually a pretty versatile midfielder, but he doesn't seem like the kind of player that Ancelotti will play against United if he feels like he has to win the game. At this point in their respective careers, Mikel arguably gives his team more than Frank Lampard does. But, in a must-win game against a team that isn't particularly focused on countering through the middle, Mikel probably doesn't have a place.
Whether Manchester United are going to be playing a flat 4-4-2 with Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney up top, a 4-3-3 with Nani and Rooney on either side of Berbatov, or a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid, Chelsea's narrow 4-4-2 diamond seems like a good idea. From Graham MacAree of SBNation's Chelsea FC blog, We Ain't Got No History:
If Chelsea midfield doesn't simply opt to collapse (always a possibility) they should pretty comfortably outclass United in the centre, even one on one. But I don't expect them to be one on one - if United are playing a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 and Ancelotti wants to deploy two strikers, the obvious response is the 4-4-2 diamond, potentially with Nicolas Anelka as the trequarista.
That last point is an important one, and it needs to be touched on further.
The 4-4-2 diamond setup with Nicolas Anelka playing behind Torres and Didier Drogba worked well against Sunderland and then got creamed against Liverpool. However, the Liverpool match was not about the failings of the system as a whole or Anelka, but rather, the fact that it's a really awful match-up for Liverpool's five at the back setup. Against Manchester United, it's a completely different story. They don't ever play tactics that inherently hamper a 4-4-2 diamond with a striker/attacking midfielder hybrid at the tip of said diamond. It seems highly likely that Ancelotti could do this again.
Bare with me for a second. Can Chelsea have their cake and eat it to? A solid midfield, width, and Nicolas Anelka as a trequarista? Well, sort of. How's this for a bold idea? A 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid (people will debate the shape, despite it being largely irrelevant) where Anelka stays high when Chelsea do not have the ball, but drops off Torres into an attacking midfield position during long spells of possession. Florent Malouda and Ramires provide the width on either side, and both would be asked to do some pinching in on defense, and additionally would be given the freedom to come inside when Chelsea are attacking. Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel sit in the middle, providing athleticism and tough tackling, as well as some solid passing ability. Am I the only one who loves this idea? Yes? (Editor's note: Yes.) Moving on.
If you didn't get an opportunity to watch Chelsea's Champions League match against Copenhagen, they played very well. They were very unlucky to not get more than two goals, and the passing exchanges were brilliant. Anelka and Torres formed an absolutely brilliant partnership. So, why not stick with the hot hand? There's no inherent tactical flaw in playing the same team that out-classed Copenhagen, so it would be a good idea for Chelsea to stick with what's working.
Because of Chelsea's numerous options, Ancelotti could make a selection completely different than the one I predicted without making me look stupid, which is pretty rare. In this case, I'm guessing that Ancelotti liked what he saw in Denmark and that he won't tinker with it too much.
Projected Chelsea Lineup (4-4-2 narrow diamond): Cech; A. Cole, Terry, Luiz, Ivanovic; Essien, Ramires, Malouda, Lampard; Anelka, Torres
While Manchester United fans might be completely confident in the outcome of today's visit to Chelsea, Blues fans are slightly more, well, "scared" might be the word of choice here. Graham MacAree writes on We Ain't Got No History:
I've always dreaded Chelsea playing against Manchester United. Last year, for the title clincher at Old Trafford, I hid during the actual match and only got through the replay (despite knowing the score) without killing myself through sheer nervousness by developing a twitch I'm not entirely sure has gone away. United are scary.
And now we have to play them. They are top of the table, by a lot. We're 5th in the league, despite being defending champions. Which is... lovely
With Chelsea still struggling to find form, as well as decipher the best way in which to use both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, it's no wonder the fans are stocking up on gin. The Blues may have recorded a 2-0 away win at FC Copenhagen, but they also were knocked out of the FA Cup in a penalty shootout against Everton after a 0-0 draw with Fulham in the league. Perhaps the pessimism is warranted.
For more on the worries of Chelsea supporters ahead of the Manchester United match, visit We Ain't Got No History, SB Nation's cheeky Chelsea blog.
Last season, a meeting between Chelsea and Manchester United likely would have had fans of both sides gnawing at their fingernails and rocking back and forth. But this season,it's really only Chelsea fans that are nervous. Despite having an extra two months to prepare for this fixture (it was set to be played in late December, but was called off due to snow), the Blues have yet to regain their league-winning form:
Just over two months later, Chelsea are still struggling with consistency, despite a 75 million pound infusion of talent in the January transfer window. While defender David Luiz has shown well in the early going with his new club, striker Fernando Torres has yet to open his Chelsea scoring account and continues his woeful form that has carried over from his recent Liverpool FC days.
United fans are confident that whether Chelsea choose to lineup in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, the visitors will see a solid win. The Red Devils are fresh off a 4-0 win against Wigan and have a solid four-point lead at the top of the table. No wonder they've got a bit of a swagger in their step.
For more on Chelsea - United, visit The Busby Babe, SB Nation's Manchester United Blog.
When Manchester United's December 19 visit to Chelsea was cancelled, it was thought a break for the Blues. The defending champions were without a win in five. Manchester United were coming off a 1-0 win over Arsenal, having beaten Blackburn 7-1 on the preceding match day. With four wins in a row, United seemed to have shaken-off a draw-riddled start to show some title-worthy form. So when the iced streets around Stamford Bridge forced the postponement, conventional wisdom held Chelsea would be closer to their true selves by the time United were called to Fulham.
Three-and-a-half months later, it's unclear whether that's come to pass. Chelsea won in Copenhagen last week, their first victory since their a January spending spree, but in the three preceding matches they'd lost at home, were drawn at Craven Cottage, and lost on penalty kicks to Everton. It's difficult to tell if that's an improvement on their November-December form since a Danish side coming off a three month break wasn't on their late fall fixture list. While it seems Chelsea has overcome the midfield problems that plagued them at the end of 2010, it's unclear they're producing better results.
Doing their part to make this match competitive, Manchester United seems to have descended to the Blues' level, even if their results don't necessarily reflect their struggles. United had lost only once going into the original match date, and they've only lost once since, giving them as many losses on the season as Chelsea accrued last month. A February 5 loss at Wolverhampton was United's first Premier League defeat of the season, a result that came amidst unconvincing (if successful) performances against Blackpool, Southampton, Crawley Town and Olympique de Marseille. At least when Chelsea appears unimpressive, they're always doing so against top-flight competition.
Which is not to say that United hasn't given impressive performances. Their 3-1, February 1 victory over Aston Villa looks all the more convincing for being the Villans' only loss since January 5. Their 2-1, February 12 win over Manchester City only looks close because of a fluke-ish goal off the back of David Silva. Unlike Chelsea, Manchester United has at least been able to turn it on when they've wanted. Given Alex Ferguson's tendencies, it's difficult to draw too much information about United's potential based on their lackluster form against the Crawley Towns.
The Manchester City performance may be our best example of what United can do when they put their best foot forward. If it is, the Red Devils may be ready for their first victory at Stamford Bridge since April 2002. Then, United got a 3-0 in thanks to goals from Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In the intervening years, the Red Devils have gone 0-4-5, but never in that time has Manchester United been so far ahead of the Blues in the standings. If that speaks to a quality difference between the sides, the potential United showed against City may be more informative than this fixture's recent history.
And although City and Chelsea go about their football in very different ways, there are still a number of similarities that help our comparison. In terms of goals conceded per match, Chelsea and City are similarly effective (0.85 compared to 0.89). They each have strong presences in central midfield, though they're deployed differently. Each tend to feature one prominent striker leading the attack, with both squads now trying to incorporate new forwards. Both sides are managed by ex-players who made their coaching names in Milan.
How much those factors play into an upcoming match would normally be dictated by how the teams set-up, but with United and Chelsea, it's difficult to predict how each side will be deployed. Alex Ferguson has a number of different approaches he can employ, his squad having no set formation. Chelsea has been a predominantly 4-3-3 team under Carlo Ancelotti, but since the signing of Fernando Torres, the Blues have been searching for a new, base formation.
That search has seen Chelsea use three different approaches. Initially, Ancelotti adopted a 4-3-1-2, an attempt to find room for both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba. After scoreless performances against Liverpool and Fulham, Ancelotti used Torres being cup-tied as a reason to go 4-3-3 against Everton, scoring only once in 120 minutes. In Copenhagen last week, the team played a conventional 4-4-2, but given the level of (rusty) competition, it's difficult to say whether that formation can be deemed a success. And beyond formation, it's unclear what the Blues are trying to do tactically and stylistically, particularly with the focal point in attack changing from match-to-match.
And that seems to be the big question: Who will start at striker for Chelsea? If Ancelotti stays true to the idea that Didier Drogba and Torres are rotating, Drogba could come back into the team, having gone 10 days without playing. However, given Torres has also been out of action for a week, could this be a chance to again try starting the potentially terrorizing tandem? If Carlo Ancelotti chooses that option, we may see the 4-3-1-2 - Chelsea's least effective formation since Torres became available - given another shot.
For United, picking a formation will be less about matching-up (given the uncertainties surrounding Ancelotti's selection) than playing to their strengths and goals. If Alex Ferguson decides to look at this as a road match against a troublesome foe and adopt a correspondingly conservative approach, we'll likely see a 4-5-1 similar to the ones he used in last year's matches. In that case, Dimitar Berbatov will likely be sacrificed, with Ryan Giggs' inclusion pushing Wayne Rooney back up to forward from the left wing position he occupied in Marseille. If Giggs can't go, Berbatov may start again.
If, however, Ferguson decides Chelsea can be had and decides to play more ambitiously, you could see the United manager revert to the set-up that last worked against Chelsea. In their last meeting of the 2008-09 season, Manchester United got a 3-0 victory at Old Trafford while playing 4-3-3, with Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo deployed along side Berbatov. If Ferguson thinks Chelsea is beatable, we could see Nani take up Cristiano Ronaldo's role, with Giggs, Darren Fletcher (both of whom started that day) and Michael Carrick in central roles. Paul Scholes could also be chosen, whether it be ahead of Giggs or Carrick.
While the set-ups and approaches are always extremely important, perhaps more important for the Blues is they improve on the football they showed throughout February. All of these systems are nice to hypothesize, but unless Chelsea players perform in a way that can execute the tactics, they will be beaten, provided Manchester United play anywhere near the level they showed against Manchester City. For as unimpressive as United has been this year -possibly earning the strange distinction of being the worst team to carry two losses into March - they have clearly been better than Chelsea. As John Terry has said recently, Chelsea need to "man up."
For Chelsea, Alex and Yossi Benayoun are still long-term absences, though the rest of the team is reasonably healthy. Yuri Zhirkov, Ancelotti's most recent injury concern, will be available off the bench.
Manchester United, however, has a number of absences. Rio Ferdinand is out with a calf injury, as is potential understudy Jonny Evans, out with a bum ankle. Chris Smalling will start next to Nemanja Vidic. Park Ji-Sung is out for a few more weeks, a big loss considering how prominently he features in big matches. Antonio Valencia's ankle isn't quite ready. Anderson is out, having had knee surgery, while Owen Hargreaves is just out. Michael Owen is doubtful, as is Giggs, though it's still unclear what's actually troubling him.
Chelsea 1, Manchester United 1 - First half goal from Rooney or Nani equalized late when John Terry heads home a corner.
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