Opposition Scouting Report: Manchester United

Mike Hewitt

A look ahead to what Chelsea can expect from Manchester United

Manchester United wrapped up the Premier League title with five games to spare, which seemed like good news for Arsenal and Chelsea, their next two opponents. It's difficult to ignore the fact that the champions have nothing to play for in this fixture - and after last week's draw, they can't even aim for the record points tally set by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. Therefore, the home side's motivation is the first key consideration for this clash, which in turn will impact upon Sir Alex Ferguson's starting team. Predicting United's starting eleven is always difficult but even more so in these circumstances.

Still, it seems likely that Robin Van Persie will partner Wayne Rooney up front. The latter plays a deeper role and links the midfield to the attack with long-range passes, particularly looking to switch the ball to the right flank. He has a good understanding with Antonio Valencia but the Ecuadorian, along with Nani and Ashley Young, have struggled for form this season - and although Nani started last Sunday, he was largely anonymous.

Therefore, Ferguson might be tempted to start Danny Welbeck on that flank. The young striker has struggled for goals this season but his manager has acknowledged that might be in part linked to his constant positional switches. "Maybe he doesn't appreciate us moving him around in various positions and we've maybe overused that because he is young," Ferguson said yesterday.

A key feature of Chelsea v Manchester United clashes in recent years has been Ferguson's particular focus on pinning back the forward runs of Ashley Cole, and with Welbeck proving useful in an advanced man-marking role against Xabi Alonso earlier this season, the Scotsman might be tempted to select Welbeck on the right.

That would free up the aforementioned combination of Van Persie and Rooney to play through the middle, although Javier Hernandez has caused problems in the past with his pace in behind, and has six goals in his past eight appearances against Chelsea.

Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Player of the Year nominee Michael Carrick is a sure starter. The Englishman is an interesting player, primarily because the public opinion on him is largely split between lavish praise and damning criticism. The truth is probably somewhere in between. He's a solid, dependable midfielder whose intelligent distribution helps set the tempo of United's passing game, but his limitations - in a defensive sense, he lacks physicality - are probably too great for a club of United's ambition.

It is unclear who will partner him. If the previous fixture between these two sides, the FA Cup quarter-final replay, is any indication, Phil Jones will play a defensive midfield role, restricting the space in between the lines for Chelsea's creative trio. Using that game again as a yardstick, that would mean Tom Cleverley would feature on the left in a narrow wide midfield role, helping to congest the centre of the park, where Juan Mata likes to operate.

Shinji Kagawa is also an option in that wide left position - he likes to come inside quickly into central playmaking positions, trying to slide through balls in behind the defence for Van Persie to chase. Ryan Giggs could also start, either on the left or in a central position, and is a more creative, technical option for Ferguson to consider.

In defence, Ferguson can choose a pairing from any of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans or even Phil Jones - all would be comfortable competing with Demba Ba in a physical battle. With Chelsea's defensive shape tending to concede time on the ball to the opposition central defenders, Ferguson might opt for Ferdinand: the Englishman has had a good season and is the most comfortable technically of United's defenders, able to bring the ball forward and play accurate passes towards the attackers, as he has done so on numerous occasions for Van Persie, whose movement off the shoulder is highly intelligent.

Patrice Evra and Rafael will play left and right back respectively, and one will be responsible for tracking the movement of Eden Hazard, depending on which flank the Belgian starts on. The tendency is for Benitez to field Oscar on the right, but the Chelsea manager might be encouraged by the poor display from Evra in last week's 1-1 draw with Arsenal, where Theo Walcott simply blazed past the Frenchman to score the opening goal.

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