Sunday’s clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford is, essentially, a title decider. At least for the Londoners, for whom defeat will surely end all hope of retaining the Premier League. Having already faced each other four times this season, twice in Europe, the Community Shield and at Stamford Bridge, there is little the teams do not already know about each other. And as so often in clashes of this magnitude it is the details that will decide the outcome; the one-on-one battles that will turn the title race in Chelsea’s favour or a seal a 19th domestic championship for United.
Didier Drogba v Nemanja Vidic
The United captain’s problems with Fernando Torres have been always been overstated but with the Spaniard in poor form it is unlikely the £50 million striker will have the opportunity to repeat the trick. Instead, with Ancelotti having restored the Chelsea players’ preferred 4-3-3 formation Vidic must snuff out the considerably more dangerous Drogba, if the Ivorian can be bothered, of course. Drogba’s performances have not reached the heights of previous campaigns, not aided by a dose of malaria, evidenced by just 11 Premier League goals this season. But the 33-year-old still has the power to win matches on his own.
Frank Lampard v Michael Carrick
The Geordie’s inability to deal with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates last weekend cost United dearly, with Ferguson’s side losing possession and territory in midfield. Tiredness perhaps but Carrick returned to the lethargic performances of the past two seasons against Arsenal and United cannot afford a similar performance on Sunday. Yet Carrick will perform a crucial role screening Lampard’s runs from deep and recycling possession to ensure United win the midfield battle at Old Trafford. Carrick is not a natural destroyer but alongside Ryan Giggs, the former Tottenham Hotspur player played a central role in United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League this season.
Antonio Valencia v Ashley Cole
The Ecuadorian’s role during United’s run-in has been remarkable given the serious nature of the broken ankle suffered in September. Valencia has not only returned to fitness, but supplanted Nani in the United side, with the 24-year-old former Wigan Athletic winger likely to start against Chelsea on Sunday. Valencia’s no-nonsense style, defensive discipline and pace have made him both a fan-favourite and Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred choice on the right-wing. But in Ashley Cole, Valencia faces one of Europe’s finest left-backs. It will prove a crucial personal duel that Valencia needs to win if United is to negate the threat down Chelsea’s left flank.
Wayne Rooney v John Obi Mikel
Rooney’s spring renaissance has coincided with a return to the ‘number 10′ position of the player’s youth, offering the former Evertonian freedom and reducing the player’s goalscoring burden. The player’s influence from a deeper position was in evidence during the recent Champions League matches between the sides where Rooney not only provided United’s creative heartbeat but augmented United’s central midfield when defending. With Chelsea likely to play three central midfielders at Old Trafford Rooney will again be required deep, to ensure United is not outnumbered in the engine room and to cut off the supply to Mikel who is the catalyst for the Londoners’ attacking play.
Javier Hernández v David Luiz
Luiz’ pace is a crucial compliment to John Terry in the heart of Chelsea’s central defence. The restored England captain is neither the quickest over the ground nor, if his positional sense is anything to go by, up top but Luiz has added an extra dimension to Chelsea’s defence since a £25 million January transfer. The Brazilian is seemingly a foul waiting to happen but, perhaps tellingly, Hernández had far less success against the former Benfica man in the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge than in the recent European games.
Sir Alex Ferguson v Carlo Ancelotti
Will United retain the 4-4-1-1 formation that proved Chelsea’s undoing in the Champions League? Will Ancelotti keep the 4-4-2 that prove so unsuccessful in the same series of matches? It is possible each will change, with Ancelotti using a three man attack in recent domestic matches, while Ferguson may be tempted to augment United’s midfield and deploy Rooney in a lone front man role. As ever, the game will be decided on the minor details, where substitutions will play a key role. While Ancelotti is likely to keep Torres in reserve, Ferguson can call on Dimitar Berbatov, still the Premier League’s top goalscorer.
Howard Webb v Everbody
The common perception that Webb favours United is based, largely, on the penalty the former police officer gave against Tottenham Hotspur in April 2009. While the foul by Heurelho Gomes on Michael Carrick was preceded by a flick of the ball, the ‘keeper took man and ball, which is, by any definition, a penalty. Add in the failure to dismiss Spurs’ Wilson Palacios for a two-footed lunge in the same game and Webb’s contribution appears markedly less ‘pro-United’. Then there’s the bizarre dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo against Manchester City in November 2008, where the Portuguese was shown red for deliberate handball. The winger batted the ball to the floor, volleyball-style, having seemingly been pushed in the back. Moreover, the official has never given a penalty against Chelsea. It’s a picture rarely painted by the mainstream media.