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.
On the plus side, the game is at Stamford Bridge, we have David Luiz back and United are missing Rio Ferdinand. Fernando Torres being in the lineup is probably a plus as well, although his performances in a Chelsea shirt have been somewhat erratic. One paper, I'd be more than happy to say that Chelsea's team is generally better than United's, but the season so far has rather put that to the lie. Sooo, what should we be expecting to see from Chelsea tomorrow? Time to add to Graham's record of hideously bad lineup guesses!
I'd be surprised if Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba weren't both involved, which rather restricts what Chelsea are going to be able to do. Fortunately, Manchester United are the kind of team that won't be able to exploit our relative lack of width that effectively, unless Nani and Patrice Evra end up on one side of the pitch, which could cause us some defensive headaches, but they will be able to pin Ashley Cole back and stop him bombing (shooting?) forward simply by placing Nani fairly high upfield.
The central combination of Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney* are plenty scary and even though we should have an excellent defensive unit out there it'll be difficult to keep them in check without help from the midfield - John Terry and David Luiz have both dealt with better forwards in their time, but expecting world-beating performances from our centre backs against top-class strikers without support from the midfield is asking for trouble. This implies a very deep-lying destroyer in Carlo Ancelotti's midfield. John Obi Mikel would fit the bill there.
*Yes, Rooney should have been sent off and banned for his elbow to the face against James McCarthy on Saturday. Yes, the FA regulations that prevented him from receiving any punishment for the offence are stupid. But even if the FA had charged Rooney and handed down a suspension, he'd have just appealed and would have been available for this match anyway. Oh well.
In the centre of the midfield, United are somewhat uninspiring. Paul Scholes is not what he once was, and Darren Fletcher is what he always has been, and the rest of their midfield is a bizarre rotating ensemble. 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 trequartista.
Sure, that didn't work particularly well against Liverpool, but it absolutely tore Sunderland to shreds, and I suspect United will deploy in a way that either mitigates most of their attacking threat or grants Anelka/whomever huge space between the lines. The entire difference between Anelka's performances vs. Sunderland and Liverpool was the amount of space he was afforded by the defence, so if he's given that space, he should perform pretty well. With Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic against Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, the centre backs will probably be too preoccupied to do an effective job closing down whoever's playing at the point of the diamond, and if Fletcher drops back to cover suddenly Mikel is almost totally free when Chelsea have the ball.
So, I'd play a team looking something like this:
I think Carlo will do something similar despite playing around with a flat 4-4-2 against Copenhagen (it won't work nearly as well against better opposition, especially ones who play with three central midfielders). Of course, Carlo tends to do the opposite of what I expect so whatever. We're going to sign a twenty legged alien named Zork to play striker who will decapitate Edwin van der Sar with his laser chainsaw eyes. Problem solved, until Vidic eats him.
Manchester United's away form this season is hardly scary, and we've historically played them better than any other team in the Premier League era. However, we're not playing historical stats ahoy here. Chelsea are up against a very tough United side who are due to put in a good performance away from home (we'll call their 4-0 win at Wigan half of a good performance). The Blues are also in the unfortunate position of needing these three points to claw their way back into the Champions League spots.
This isn't going to be an easy match and I have all the confidence of a... really unconfident person*. We have a chance to win - a pretty good chance, in fact, but all of our players need to do their part. With what seems like half of the team off the pace and the other half shooting people, I'm not really expecting much more than a draw. But I'm a natural pessimist, so there you go.
*Or Graham::confidence as Graham::crafting metaphors.
Pick: 1-1 Draw.