Fergie’s much publicised intention to field full strength Manchester United sides during this year’s Champions League group stage is being stretched to the brink for tonight’s home challenge against Braga. Sunday’s upcoming massive (wait for it…) ‘six pointer’ away at Chelsea does ultimately take precedence, meaning Evra and Ferdinand will rest their creaking limbs (although Evra’s limbs seem only to creak while 'defending'; give him the sniff of an attacking overlap and he’s off like a whippet). United’s seemingly never-ending dearth of un-crocked defenders looks to provide the promising Scott Wootton with his first meaningful start, while Buttner will be given the opportunity to continue his the challenge for the first choice left-back berth. A google search of ‘Man United fan forum’ and ‘Bring back O’Shea and Brown’ unsurprisingly continues to yield no real results, but since their shoulder-shrugging departure two seasons ago, United’s defensive cover has been decidedly shaky and, well...injured.
Braga come into the fixture in fine fettle having won four of their previous five games and beating Galatasaraay away in their last CL game. United continue to lurch forward relying on outscoring opposition with their potent attacking line, and with tonight’s inexperienced defence likely to ship at least one goal, this looks to be the Reds’ best bet once more. Rooney will no doubt start, and, having been rested through jetlag, Kagawa is also likely to feature. Neither have been utilised thus far as the spearhead of the attack so one might expect an in-form Van Persie to start again, but having played ten times already this season, and with Stamford Bridge on the horizon, I’d suggest that instead it’s time to unleash the forgotten Little Pea.
...tonight would provide Hernandez with the perfect opportunity to prove his worth as an integral member of United’s attacking force rather than an unnecessary wage-waster
Hernandez has been used primarily as a substitute this season, rarely even given sufficient time to make a dent, let alone impact, in any of the games. His only Premier League start came against Wigan, in which he inevitably scored (also missing a penalty, admittedly), after joining the orderly queue of United goalscorers. There is talk of Atletico Madrid planning a £12m offer in January for the Mexican man-child in order to replace a soon-to-depart Falcao. With RVP in need of a rest (particularly given his injury track record), tonight would provide Hernandez with the perfect opportunity to prove his worth as an integral member of United’s attacking force rather than an unnecessary wage-waster. His unbridled energy and undoubted finishing ability hardly make him a natural second-string player, and I would argue he deserves a chance to show he is still capable of scoring in big games by playing as the main striker rather than alongside RVP (as against Cluj). Indeed, he has actually looked pretty sharp during the limited time he has been afforded this season (with an average substitute introduction time of 80mins).
Educated guesses about United starting line-ups rarely prove accurate these days, with Fergie’s team selection sometimes appearing more astrologically than tactically motivated (a-la Raymond Domenech). The 4-2-3-1 or ‘badly pruned Christmas tree’ formation has emerged as the prominent choice (as is ‘on trend this season’), but United’s current squad- as well as the club’s history of using wide players- does make the centre-centric approach a decidedly awkward fit at present . Fergie has also talked of adopting the diamond midfield shape more often, and with its use in United’s last CL game against Cluj, many infer that the same shape will be employed tonight. However, with the defence needing all the support they can get tonight, starting with two deeper-lying (not necessarily ‘defensive’) midfielders as part of a 4-2-3-1 would make tactical sense.
Fletcher is back and hungry for action and would add dynamism in front of the back four, at least for an hour or so (at which point Anderson could be just the man). Cleverley was rested on Saturday so would fit snugly alongside Fletcher, alternating forward forages with the gutsy Scot (apologies for the pun). Ferguson has also declared that Ashley Young will ‘feature’, although it’s unclear whether he will start or not. With his form prior to injury highly shaky, the battle is now on for the first-choice inside-out left winger position with the ever-erratic Nani. I envisage Young to start though, alongside Rooney and Kagawa.
The likes of Fletcher and Cleverley should add a little more dynamism in midfield, and with Rooney thriving once more in a withdrawn position , I imagine a victory is on the cards
It will also be interesting to see whether Ferguson decides to force more pressure on De Gea’s position as primary goalkeeper by selecting Lindegaard, or whether his recent preference for the Spaniard will be reinforced with another appearance tonight. My feeling is that by this stage of the season it is time to make a firm choice about the No 1 keeper in order to forge a stable defensive unit, so De Gea would get my nod. Rafael looks likely to continue at right-back and Evans is probably the first name on the team sheet- an unlikely statement two years ago.
Braga like to break at speed, with Alan the primary creator and Eder the natural finisher, which is a ploy United have not deal with particularly well this season. However, this has been most noticeable- and predictably so- when the zimmer frame foursome of Ferdinand, Evans, Scholes and Carrick have been charged with protecting the goal while Evra and Rafael are still remain in the opposition penalty area tying up their laces. The likes of Fletcher and Cleverley should add a little more dynamism in midfield, and with Rooney thriving once more in a withdrawn position , I imagine a victory is on the cards- although I do think Braga will score at least once, and United’s performance is unlikely to be particularly exhilarating. If the Reds do manage to collect all nine points from their first three CL games, the pressure will be greatly relieved for the remaining group matches which should in turn produce more fluent, nerveless performances.
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