It’s a season-defining showdown for both Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford today, with all eyes on the performances of Zippy, Captain Bravelionheart and a farmer chasing a greased-up pig…
Old Trafford in full voice
Make no mistake; Manchester United fans know how big this game is. Having been treated to domestic dominance and European success over the last 20 years (and lost a sizeable portion of fanatical match-goers in protest to the Glazers), there’s a residual element of complacency among the home support at Old Trafford. The gallery doesn’t get going until absolutely required - generally when chasing a late winner or equaliser – and the players do respond to it. Having strolled through to the Champions League final in midweek despite SAF resting the majority of his first-choice side, confidence is on the up, having bottomed out in last weekend’s shocker at the Emirates. When Chelsea rocked up at Old Trafford last season, the atmosphere among the home support was one of jittery dread, with sole hope Wayne Rooney sidelined by an ankle injury. This time around, the circumstances are totally different and the team has a better balance. The circumstances are serving up nerves, but of an optimum level to vocalise, rather than hush, the home support. Whether you like United fans or not, Old Trafford in full voice is a daunting stage for any visiting team; even one of Chelsea’s experience.
Ancelotti to attract attention for succumbing to / defying Abramovich
Torres or Drogba? Not a new dilemma, but one which may now shape Chelsea’s season. Carlo Ancelotti has been attempting to manage the gradual evolution of his strikeforce by gently edging the Ivorian towards the door and ushering the Spaniard into the fold since late January. The shift change has hardly gone smoothly so far, but the rest of the team has carried the Blues to the brink of an unlikely title retention. Now, for the biggest game of all, Ancelotti must make his choice of formation and strikers. Logic decrees that he should turn back the clock for one last time and go with a front three with Drogba the spearhead, but last month’s Champions League double-header suggested otherwise. Whichever way it goes, you can guarantee Carlo’s eyebrow will remain cocked throughout, while the press prepare to *delete as appropriate* slate/herald him for succumbing to/defying Abramovich’s whims.
So there you have it: under 3.5 goals, four or more bookings, United to score first, last goal to come after 75 minutes. Stick my 50% cut in the post, ta. Just don’t ask me to pick a winner.
The usual suspects will step up
These fixtures have become a platform for certain players to shine. After slipping up in Moscow, John Terry became a cult hero at Old Trafford. ‘Viva John Terry’ remains a fans’ favourite among the Red Army but, whisper it, Captain Bravelionheart seems to be thriving on it these days. Terry’s knack for upping his game is mirrored across the field by a smattering of players. Wayne Rooney is the Blues’ bête noir, with goals in three of the last four seasons and a string of impressive displays in his favoured role in the hole (insert pun here). Ji-sung Park and Michael Essien are regular irritants to rival fans. The veterans are at it too: Ryan Giggs’ midfield renaissance really started in Manchester United’s 3-0 win in this fixture two seasons back, while Drogba has stepped forward in the last 12 months by adding goals to his usual harassment of Nemanja Vidic. A key aspect may lie in an absentee, however. Though Patrice Evra has shown himself to be one of the world’s best full-backs over the last four years, his concentration lapses this season have led to a string of goals against, and steady old John O’Shea will bring more discipline to the position – even if his pursuit of Ramires will resemble the comedic lumberings of a farmer chasing a greased pig.
Refereeing analysis to go (further) into overdrive
Back in January, then-Liverpool striker Ryan Babel’s mocked-up picture of Howard Webb in a United shirt evidenced a growing sense that the country’s most prominent official had leanings towards M16. Thus all eyes will be on allegedly partisan Zippy in black, in a fixture which has a rich recent history of bad decisions – usually against United. Fergie’s Reds did escape with two key calls in the recent Champions League double-header (Evra’s inexplicably unpunished assault on Ramires, Chicharito’s marginally offside opener), but Chelsea have benefited in the Premier League. Last season’s title hinged on JT’s ludicrously illegal winner at Stamford Bridge, while both Drogba and Macheda should have had goals disallowed at Old Trafford. Martin Atkinson’s award of a late penalty for the hosts at the Bridge in March prompted Sir Alex to talk himself into the stands for five games, and with the stakes even higher this time around, Webb will come under intense scrutiny from all corners.
Bookies to take a bashing
There are patterns to these games which, if you’re willing to place financial faith in the observations of a stranger with a casual penchant for gambling, can be exploited to your gain. United generally boss the first half tactically, then Chelsea hit back and use their physical advantage in the second (with the exception of the most recent CL meeting, where the Blues started strong and faded). There are goals, but not many – a maximum of three in every Premier League meeting bar one for the last decade – and there is always a goal in the final 15 minutes (the last seven PL games in a row). There’s a decent chance of a red card, and at least two bookings apiece. So there you have it: under 3.5 goals, four or more bookings, United to score first, last goal to come after 75 minutes. Stick my 50% cut in the post, ta. Just don’t ask me to pick a winner.
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