Andre Villas-Boas will make his first trip to Old Trafford with an unconvincing yet unbeaten record of games under his belt. Tuesday night’s Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen saw the Portuguese manager achieve his first coupling of a win with a clean sheet. On Sunday he is likely to return John Terry to the Chelsea line-up after leaving him out of Tuesday's game. Despite David Luiz’s superb goal midweek I think AVB will favour the reliably solid Ivanovic to partner the Chelsea captain in central defence. The curly-haired wonder’s ability to score goals is exciting and included a winner against United at Stamford Bridge last season. However, Luiz is also at times reckless and endured a hellish time on his last visit to Manchester United, making a mistake that allowed Hernandez to score in the opening minute.
But defensive selection will sit firmly at the bottom of AVB’s priority list as he faces the same dilemma that plagued Ancelotti’s final months in charge: Fernando Torres – the ‘goal-scorer’ who isn’t scoring goals. The man who is making all the headlines for all the wrong reasons, not least of all allegedly slagging off his teammates for being “too slow” in a Spanish interview. A striker that some pundits are already saying “was a good striker”. Yes, it would be a lie to say that Fernando Torres is a player many managers would want to deal with in their team right now. However, Villas-Boas has an option that Ancelotti lacked in the latter part of last season - the very much in form Daniel Sturridge. The 22-year-old was the main spark in a Chelsea side that laboured to a win at Stamford Bridge earlier this week. At the moment he has the key thing Torres is lacking which is of course confidence. Although he didn’t find the net on Tuesday he looked sharp and tested the keeper from distance and to me looks like a man who would relish a start in Manchester.
Villas-Boas played Sturridge and Torres together in the Champions League but both are best suited to the central main role. Dropping Torres and playing Sturridge as the main man would be AVB’s best choice. He could then play Nicolas Anelka on the right where Sturridge played on Tuesday, a position the Frenchman has happily taken up for the Blues under several different managers now. Torres is and always has been a central striker – it was how he developed his reputation. I cannot see him working in a peripheral role in the way that Anelka does so well. People will highlight that Torres served up the two assists in the Champions League game and could argue that this warrants a start against Manchester United but he was brought in from Liverpool to score goals not supply them. Playmakers can come in the shape of Lampard, Malouda or the new and impressive Juan Mata.
The loan spell clearly did wonderful things both for Sturridge’s skill and his self-belief. I will hold my hands up and admit I had slated him a number of times before his departure, but his performances at Bolton Wanderers and back in a Chelsea shirt have silenced my impatient criticism. AVB has said that he will be rotating his players - but Old Trafford will be his biggest challenge yet so we will surely get an idea of what he sees as his best 11. He has also previously said that his team will be selected on form, which, if he is a man of his word, would surely leave the path clear for Sturridge to lead the attack.
Starting the Champions League game on the bench might be just the thing to get Super Frank to do what he does best – pop up and score that crucial goal.
So if Sturridge does start on Sunday this leaves the small matter of the most expensive player in English football. To be honest I felt sympathy for Torres on Tuesday – his overhead effort in the opening minutes would have been a spectacular way to end his dry spell and would have surely handed him the dose of the confidence he so desperately needs. He also found the net later in the first half but the goal was rightly disallowed due to Raul Meireles impeding the goalkeeper from an offside position. Despite a little controversy over whether his former Liverpool teammate touched the ball or not I think had the goal stood it would have been Torres’. He then selflessly assisted David Luiz’s goal on the edge of the penalty area, seeing the Brazilian score his third goal since signing at the same time as him. To say this is not easy would be an understatement. I do genuinely believe that Torres’ time will come and he will not be written off as ‘another Shevchenko’. But I don’t think this Sunday is going to be his day to open up the floodgates – Villas-Boas cannot bank on Torres ending his drought against Manchester United.
Ideally I think Sunday’s attacking formation should shape up with Sturridge leading things, flanked by Mata and Anelka with Mikel holding in midfield joined by Ramires and Lampard. Starting the Champions League game on the bench might be just the thing to get Super Frank to do what he does best – pop up and score that crucial goal.
Sir Alex Ferguson will face much less of a dilemma in choosing his attack than the Chelsea manager. His team have notched up 18 goals in their opening four matches, 11 of which were scored at home – recording the best start for any team to a Premier League season – bettering Chelsea’s record at this stage last year by one goal. Rooney and Hernandez are firing on all cylinders and Ashley Young has slotted so naturally into the Man United team on the left.
In terms of overall chances at Old Trafford I would adore taking a point back down south - but if we are to grab a decisive goal and threaten to defeat them at home for the first time since they lost to us there in April 2010 then Torres cannot start. David de Gea has looked a bit shaky at times since coming to the UK, so with Sturridge in the form he is we might just pull out something special and provide evidence that there is a team outside of Manchester that is firmly in the mix this year.
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