It doesn’t matter whether the night before I drank the local dry or was tucked up by ten o’clock with a hot mug of cocoa, I wake up too bloody early on the morning of a big game and can’t go back to sleep again. As I’m lying in bed, telling my brain to switch off again so I can sleep, I play out scenario after scenario of how the day could go.
Maybe Rooney will score a thunderbolt, it’s been a while since one of them, and will run to our fans with his team-mates and they’ll ‘rock the baby’. Maybe John Terry will slip at the crucial moment and Antonio Valencia will pinch the ball off him, run round and blast it through Petr Cech’s legs. Maybe Darren Fletcher will make a perfectly timed and executed last ditch tackle as Frank Lampard catches us on the break. Maybe our out of sorts defence will get too close to Didier Drogba in the penalty area and concede an inevitable penalty.
And before I know it, I’m wide awake.
Ahead of our trip to Anfield, I was fairly confident. Whilst knowing it really was a must win for Liverpool, I hoped the embarrassment of the 4-1 defeat last season would at least spur us on to do something that Sunday. The pain of losing to Liverpool hurts more than any other opponent, which takes some of the pressure off the Chelsea game today in comparison, however I don’t feel fairly confident today. As I said in a discussion with a Chelsea fan, these games often favour the underdog to come good, but that isn’t enough to settle my nerves.
I imagine we’re going to go with a five man midfield with Rooney as the lone striker, the formation the manager often chooses for the big games, particularly against opponents with a midfield as strong as Chelsea’s.
Whilst Ryan Giggs has had a fantastic season so far, he struggled to make an impact against Liverpool on the left, which begs the question should he be used on the wing again today? If he was to shift centrally that would leave Nani and Valencia on the wings, or, Obertan and Valencia, the move large sections of our support are calling for. I understand the frustrations felt because of Nani and certainly agree that Obertan looks to be the real deal, but I personally think it would be suicide to start the French lad today. He is riding high with confidence at the moment, buoyed by the support of our fans, but to play him from the start at Stamford Bridge would be chucking him in at the deep end and could have serious consequences. If he has a bad game it could psychologically effect him, particularly with the press all too keen to rip him apart and claim he’ll never ‘fill Ronaldo’s boots’, and I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
The manager might still opt to put Giggsy on the wing though because Nani hasn’t been good enough consistently (but what a lovely little flick on for Michael Owen’s goal against CSKA Moscow in the week!) and we need to make sure we’ve got as much quality as possible in the midfield and don’t have room for any passengers. So that could leave us with Fletcher, Anderson and Carrick in the central midfield roles. We’ve got some fight there and if Carrick can please rediscover his passing quality and confidence, some creativity. Scholes would be on the bench ready to come on in the second half if things aren’t going our way, where he could collect his compulsory yellow card as well as hopefully spraying the ball about in the final third to get our wingers in on the act.
If Rooney is to play up front we will have the problem which I can’t recall ever seeing being solved. Getting the ball to him. He’ll obey orders to begin with, with ball after ball flying through the air and being won by the defender who is a good half foot or so taller than him. Then he’ll start pushing wide to collect the ball and find there is no one to cross to when he gets it. So then he will come deep to get a touch and we have no one up there to score. Am I being harsh? I really am struggling to remember when the lone striker formation has paid off, particularly when Rooney is the lone striker. That’s no disrespect to him but he’s too small to win the ball in the air and he’s outnumbered when accurate crosses do manage to make their way through. That for me screams that we should have Dimitar Berbatov on the pitch which is something the manager thought wise against Liverpool. Will he risk having a thinner midfield so that he can include Berbatov in the starting line-up though? Lucas-Mascherano are no Lampard-Essien-Ballack.
If we’re struggling, chuck on Michael Owen but take a midfielder off in his place. Let’s see how much damage our strikers can do when they’re all on together.
And I’m saving the best until last: the defence. Hmm. This really is a worry. With Rio Ferdinand struggling to deal with the upper body strength of that little weed Fernando Torres, it probably is a good job he’s been ruled out from facing Drogba, who is probably in the form of his life. This means it will be up to Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans to put the boot in, the latter of which will be presented with his toughest challenge so far as a United player. He played against Drogba when he was a Sunderland player and kept him quiet, and also did the job home and away against Chelsea last year. But Drogba isn’t the joke of a man who turned up at Old Trafford last year, swinging at the ball, seeing it go off for a throw-in and laughing, as his side suffered a painful 3-0 defeat.
But we have to get the balance right in defence. There’s no point spending all our time shutting out Drogba when the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Frank Lampard are still on the prowl.
I imagine our full-backs will be employed for more defensive duties than they are usually, which means I would certainly favour Wes Brown to mirror Patrice Evra. I’m not slating John O’Shea but Wes is the better player and I would feel more confident if he was dealing with any wide Chelsea threat. Plus, what would our travelling support have to sing about if Brown wasn’t playing?
If we were offered a point right now, I would take it. Chelsea are in great form and we’re doing our usual start of the season routine. A good result at Stamford Bridge could really help us kick on but essentially I don’t want us to suffer the humiliation we put them through last season. Heads down and let’s get on with it lads. We have to go with the belief we can beat them so that is what I have to predict… a slim United victory. COME on reds.