Well I don't think y'all need me to tell you that this game is huge. Chelsea are in a tricky situation after a 1-0 home loss to Manchester United last week - to advance, we must win. Which is kind of a pain, because winning at Old Trafford is fairly difficult. Can we do it? Yeah, we can. Is it something we should expect? Not so much.Those two denied penalty calls and the bizarre sequence last week where Didier Drogba hit the post and Frank Lampard failed to net the rebound with the goal at his mercy are really coming back to haunt us now.
Unlike every other Champions League quarter-final, however, this is far from over. Should Chelsea manage to nick an early goal, we're back to square one and things are looking great again. So, the trick is to nullify Manchester United while doing enough to score ourselves, which would be some trick. There are a number of key questions for Carlo Ancelotti to answer if he wants to get a result here.
- How do you stop Wayne Rooney?
- Who do you pick up front?
- How do you link play?
The answer to questions one and three, at least for me, is to use a 4-3-3. Last week at Stamford Bridge we had a 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2 battle, and while Chelsea weren't as bad as the media later made us out to be, they were hardly great, especially considering home-field advantage. Manchester United's lines in a 4-4-2 are far more fluid than Chelsea's - both Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick are more than happy to drop relatively deep to find and hold the ball, which leaves Chelsea's midfield unable to cope with either of them if they simply field a two-man centre: Michael Essien can't pick Rooney up because otherwise he leaves a midfielder free, and Lampard can't chase Carrick deep for fear of exposing his partner.
The obvious solution to the problems the Blues had last week is to play a 4-3-3 with either Michael Essien or John Obi Mikel as the holding player. Mikel seems like he'd be a better fit for the role, but if he's as rusty as his performance against Wigan suggests, Essien might be a better fit. A deep midfielder would be able to contain Rooney when he drops into the false nine role, and would also leave Lampard free to chase down Carrick as he sees fit.
In addition, the 4-3-3 would allow Chelsea to play a slightly less attacking-minded right back, but they'll probably end up having to field Jose Bosingwa anyway. Even so, he should be able to pay more attention to his defensive duties this time around, assuming he has a dedicated wide forward ahead of him. The ability to have the fullbacks and both advanced central midfield players push forward should see Chelsea with far more ability to bring their forwards into play.
There are two selection problems up front in this system. Florent Malouda should start at wide left - he's a little more reliable than Yuri Zhirkov going forwards, although he doesn't have the Russian's* defensive ability. In the centre is trickier. Ancelotti should only field one of Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres here, and I'm not entirely sure which one I'd rather see start (they'll almost certainly be switched at some point). It may be that Chelsea need to go back to their more traditional attack, in which case starting Drogba would be a good idea, and Torres could be deployed later against tired legs.
On the right side, I think there's an argument to start Salomon Kalou ahead of Nicolas Anelka, which I'm sure I'll take some stick for. Kalou's hardly a superstar, but he can do a job on the right side, drawing out the centrebacks, keeping Patrice Evra occupied, and swinging in crosses at a reasonably competent level. If Drogba starts, I would field Kalou, while if Torres starts I'd prefer to see Anelka.
Yossi Benayoun is not fit to start the match, despite plenty of wishful thinking from Chelsea fans. However, Alex is a bit of a wild card. It seems entirely possibly that the centre back is available for selection, in which case Chelsea could field an almost full-strength back line of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Alex, and Branislav Ivanovic. I don't think we're particularly likely to see that happen, especially when we need a goal, but Alex has been rushed back from injury before.
It's difficult to say how Sir Alex Ferguson will set out his team to deal with Chelsea. We know he knows Chelsea probably need to go 4-3-3, so it would be a big surprise to see United come out in their now-typical 4-4-2 in reply (he shifted to 4-3-3 when Chelsea did in the final 15 minutes of the first leg). He also can't afford to be overly defensive - the Blues are too good to simply sit on a 1-0 lead and hope it works. Ferguson has to play a balanced system, but he certainly has the players to do that (except Rafael da Silva, who is injured).
Coming back from 1-0 down at home is difficult but not impossible. In fact, we've seen it happen already this year, when Inter Milan beat Bayern Munich 3-2 at the Allianz Arena after losing 1-0 at the San Siro - and I'd guess this match is about as closely matched. However, in keeping with my usual massively sunny personality, I'm not expecting a win here. That might make me a bad Chelsea fan, but last week hurt and I can't say with any confidence we'll turn it around.
All I really ask is that Chelsea fight hard and Ancelotti comes up with a smart solution to our issues. I'd love a win, but I'd also like to see something approximating a good performance from the Blues.
Projected Chelsea Lineup (4-3-3): Peter Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Jose Bosignwa; Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Ramires; Florent Malouda, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka.
Time: 7:45 PM GMT (11:45 AM PST), Tuesday April 12th.
Pick: 1-1 Draw; Manchester United win 2-1 on aggregate.