The thought of playing Norwich at Carrow Road produces an involuntary twitch of the eye, bringing back as it does the haunting memory of the 2-0 shambles in 2005 that summed up Manchester United’s third-placed Premier League season. Fergie trusted in the mighty duo of Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson that day; looking back the result was probably inevitable. With no Norwich away league fixture in to play again until last year, Gigg’s last minute winner did go some way to dispelling the memories, but it also showed the resilience of Paul Lambert’s side. Chris Hughton may have struggled to get things underway at the start of this season, but the solidity that is such a hallmark of his teams is gradually being cemented, and they come into the game unbeaten in their last four games and with an impressive home record (minus a five-goal shocker against Liverpool).
With a handful of players reluctantly carrying out national service on Wednesday (‘combat drills’ being probably the most apt analogy), and United’s injury list piling up through the season as usual, Fergie has a somewhat tricky team selection, particularly in the engine room (to use football cliché). Fletcher took on his usual international role as chief Braveheart midweek, playing a full 90 minutes. Doing so suggests Ferguson was never going to pick him for Saturday, instead seeing Luxembourg away as a good match fitness exercise. Cleverley laboured around for an hour against Sweden, so is also unlikely to start (although I fully admit ‘educated’ Manchester United line-up predictions are rarely accurate). Birthday boy Paul Scholes will probably get the nod as the creator-in-chief, after all, according to Zidane: "My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder."
Now, I’m a big fan of Michael Carrick, but I’m also a firm believer that against sides looking to play on the counter attack, there ain’t room for the both of them in midfield. The Aston Villa game proved yet again that the two playing alongside each other will always leave a massive gap in the hole (really going for the clichés) when possession is lost in the opponent’s half. Both goals came about this way against Villa, and with Fergie reaffirming this morning “We can’t continue to give teams a head start”, the sensible option seems to avoid the Scholes-Carrick partnership. He may not be the ideal option, but Anderson may instead be best suited for a starting berth in the centre, adding some mobility- albeit slightly chaotic- alongside Scholes. He is the car, if you will, driving Scholes’ SatNav around the pitch. There is also the alternative of a Carrick-Anderson partnership, but frankly to me that strikes about as much fear as the nickname ‘Canaries’.
Although United have often adopted the diamond formation away from home this season, their shape is gradually shifting back to 4-4-1-1 (basically 4-4-2, but you’re not allowed to say that anymore), as against Villa last week. With Valencia looking sharp and probably the most fit player in the squad at present, he’s an obvious starter on the right. Nani being injured (and bang out of form anyway), it’s down to Young or Welbeck for the inside out role. The latter played the full game on Wednesday so is unlikely to feature. Young did, like Cleverley, play an hour against Sweden, but at least his performance was pretty good so he’d be my favourite for the role. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out Cleverley being used on the left of a wonky midfield diamond for his defensive abilities, in a bid to avoid a repeat of last weekend’s left-sided exposure.
The back four pretty much picks itself with Evans still out. The only slight query is whether Buttner will come in for Evra, who played midweek and at 31 is no longer as capable of playing three games in a week. Phil Jones being back in training is a pretty big boost, particularly as Smalling’s return is proving a little more intensive that intended, playing consecutive games due to Evan’s troublesome groin. In fact, with Wilshere’s England selection, chances are Jones was actually ready to train earlier than announced, but Ferguson was worried Hodgson would snap him up for England before kicking a ball. Up front Rooney is looking doubtful through injury so it’s a pretty straightforward pick of Hernandez and Van Persie.
Norwich have only conceded two goals in their last five games but Manchester United’s attacking potency makes it pretty likely that they will concede at least that many tomorrow. I fancy both RVP and Hernandez to get on the scoresheet, with this partnership having proved highly successful so far at stretching defences and finishing with clinical precision. Norwich remain light of goals despite their improved form, but still United don’t look capable of keeping a clean sheet either, having last done so over a month ago at Newcastle. A 3-1 United win looks like a good bet.
The defeat in 2005 also provides a nice reference point for a healthy reflection; it is uplifting to take stock of just how much the strength in depth of the squad has developed. With the multiple dissections of Manchester United’s finances this week understandably concentrating on the Glazer’s incredibly untempered greed and the lack of first-team investment this indicates for the future, looking through the current squad- attacking options in particular- is a pretty soothing exercise. It might appear a little top-heavy at present, but with Smalling, Jones, Fletcher returning and (hopefully) Vidic coming back around Christmas, I’m reminded that United do actually possess a well-rounded group of players.