Sunday’s match against Chelsea may not earn Manchester United the Premier League title but victory will take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to within a whisker of a 19th domestic championship. It is a prize that came sharply into focus this week, with the 69-year-old Scot resting key players during United’s Champions League semi-final defeat of Schlake. Wednesday’s 4-1 win, taking United to Wembley on a 6-1 aggregate scoreline, has provided Ferguson’s squad with a welcome tonic ahead of Chelsea’s visit. Not that United’s manager had any doubts about his team’s performances at Old Trafford, claiming that the Reds’ home form is the best in Europe.
Despite overwhelming margin of victory Ferguson will make substantial changes to the side that beat the former German champions this week, with up to seven players returning. Indeed, United’s manager effectively gambled the Reds’ progression in Europe to ensure his troops do not suffer the fatigue that so affected last week’s performance against Arsenal.
“Our home record is probably the best in Europe,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“It is the reason we are there. Some of the performances at home this season have been absolutely terrific. Hopefully it will get us the result we want on Sunday because this is a big game. If we win, we should win the league.
“Everyone is aware of the magnitude of Sunday’s game. It is one of the reasons why I picked the team I did on Wednesday. I wanted to give us a real chance. We will have a fresh team and that makes a difference at this time of the season.”
Yet Chelsea arrive in Manchester, site of defeat in the Champions League last month, in outstanding domestic form. Elimination from Europe’s premier competition has precipitated a run gaining the Londoners 25 points from a potential 27. Coupled with United dropping points at Anfield, St James’ Park and the Emirates recently, victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s men will take Chelsea to the head of the Premier League table.
It is a scenario, says Ferguson, enabled by United’s loss to Chelsea in the Premier League in March, where referee Martin Atkinson’s performance drew a stinging rebuke from the Scot.
“That result was the change for them,” added Ferguson, whose criticism of Atkinson earned a five-match touchline ban.
“We all know the circumstances of that game and I don’t need to get into that. But the outcome gave them a lift. They were out of the game and they had won it. But we always said it is a very difficult league. The Premier League is hard to win. We know because we have been involved in the championship races for 19 years.”
Captain Nemanja Vidic returns to lead the side, alongside Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park. Despite the positive performances from Brazilian midfielder Anderson and the much maligned Darron Gibson in midweek neither is likely to make Ferguson’s starting line-up. The same is true of Darren Fletcher, of whom Ferguson has high hopes for the Champions League final in three weeks, but he should make the bench against Chelsea.
Indeed, Ferguson’s principal decision rests on whether to maintain the 4-4-1-1 shape that proved so effective against Chelsea in Europe, or augment United’s midfield against Ancelotti’s newly rediscovered three-man engine room.
That United does not need to chase victory may prove decisive. However, it is a selection poser for which the Scot is providing few clues, claiming only that United will not play for a draw.
“I have no idea what to expect from Chelsea,” added Ferguson, whose team has allowed a 15 point Premier League lead to slip in the past two months.
“I was at their game last week and couldn’t get anything from that. Drogba played the whole game so you would expect him definitely to play. But he started off wide right, then Torres went there. Whether they start with both of them on Sunday is difficult to say. But no matter what they do, we have the players to handle it.”
Chelsea manager Ancelotti must choose whether to field both Didier Drogba and £50 million striker Fernando Torres, who was so ineffectual during the recent Champions League encounters. However, David Luiz is available for the Premier League match after missing the European games due to ineligibility.
Luiz was a key figure when Chelsea beat United 2-1 at Stamford bridge in March, scoring the winning goal. Indeed, the Londoners have won the last three Premier League encounters between the sides, including a controversial victory during last season’s title run in.
Yet, it is to the recent European ties that United will turn. Victory home and away in the Champions League will give the Reds a psychological edge, claims winger Nani.
“The most important game now is Chelsea not Barcelona. It will be very difficult. But we are at home and we have had good experiences against them,” said winger Nani, who may well return to the bench for Chelsea’s visit.
“We know if we want to win the game we have to play with confidence. The results against them in the Champions League were very good. I think that gives us the psychological advantage. We just have to concentrate on our football and winning the game. If we do that then everything will be fine.
“If we win this one then it is a great advantage for us. It is nearly over then. We have a great chance.”
And with United having taken 49 of 51 potential points at home this season, it is a message that United supporters can rally round. Only West Bromwich Albion has emerged with anything from Old Trafford in the Premier League; unless Chelsea can improve on that result the title is surely United’s.
Premier League. Old Trafford, London, 7 May 20011, 4.00pm.
United – 4411 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Fabio da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson.
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Lampard, Essien; Kalou, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Hilário, Turnbull, Ramires, Torres, Benayoun, Zhirkov, Ferreira, Alex, Bertrand, Anelka, McEachran
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: Darren Cann & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Phil Dowd
United – LDWWLW
Chelsea – WLWWWW