Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Midweek Preview: 25th January 2006

Manchester United VS Blackburn Rovers (Carling Cup Semi-Final Second Leg)

"Please lah. You really think Man Utd will die without Paul Scholes and John O' Shea, is it?" - Sheena, upon hearing dire proclamations of Man Utd's dearth of midfielders

I made that above statement as Manchester United head into the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, with the tie stalemated at a 1 - 1 draw at Ewood Park.

Arrogant? Yes. Confident? Undoubtedly so. But true? Very, very possible.

Yes, we may currently be without a whole host of first-team midfielders. Alan Smith, our midfield hardman, may not be match fit for this match despite just recovering from his ankle injury. Park Ji-Sung is still nursing a knee problem. Cristiano Ronaldo is serving the last of a 3-match suspension today. John O' Shea is out for six weeks with fractured ribs. And Paul Scholes, after slowly clawing himself back to form, is out for the rest of the season with his mysterious eye ailment.

That is a scary injury list, no doubt. But at the same time, there are positives to look forward to.

Without Paul Scholes, Fergie can field Louis Saha and Ruud van Nistelrooy up front together, with Wayne Rooney withdrawn into Scholes' role in the hole behind the strikers (though this season Scholes has been playing in a deeper position). Saha and van Nistelrooy's budding partnership was cut short by a dreadful run of injuries for Saha, but it showed promise then; and Saha, in his appearances since he returned, has shown clear signs of the ability that made Fergie splash out 12 million pounds for him. Plus, with Rooney playing in the position well-known as his favourite and best position, our wonderkid can unleash the true and complete fury of his inspiration, brilliance and creativity. The three-pronged attack will be a fearsome one.

Cristiano Ronaldo will be out for only one more game, and subsequently the team can enjoy his services again. For this game Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can be deployed on the right wing, where he played for an entire season after the departure of Beckham. He may not have the pace, technique, or upbringing of a winger, but he brings with him crucial League Cup experience. Darren Fletcher can then be played in the centre, where he is most effective, as seen in the Man Utd - Liverpool match where his play and contribution increased significantly after he was pushed from the right wing back into centre, in the second half.

So, Scholes being out isn't all that bad. It might even turn out a blessing in disguise for the Red Devils if Rooney gets to play behind van Nistelrooy and Saha for the rest of the season, and allowed license to roam. It's not so bad too, about Alan Smith and John O' Shea; Fletcher is not really a defensive player, but he does a good enough job in the middle of the park holding the defence and midfield together, and if given a run of games in the right position he could very well show his detractors what he's capable of.

Going purely by statistics, however, Blackburn head into this match on a better run of form than Man Utd, with 4 wins and a draw in the last 5 games compared to Man Utd's 3 wins and 2 draws. Furthermore, Blackburn is fast becoming a sort of weird anti-team for Man Utd, beating them at Old Trafford earlier in the season and holding them to a draw for the first leg of the League Cup. To cap it all, they have Morten-Gamst Pedersen, a man I'm getting heartily sick of, as he seems to regard scoring against my team as his main goal in life.

The only good things I can pluck from this fixture is that Blackburn are facing a striker shortage, with Paul Dickov injured and on-form Craig Bellamy racing to get fit in time. And Man Utd have an away goal advantage. Keep a clean sheet - not unlikely given the recent performances of Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar - and we're free and clear. But Fergie might choose to blood new defender Nemanja Vidic today, breaking up the well-built up partnership of Brown and Ferdinand, and in that case a clean sheet may not be a given, if Vidic is suffering from nerves, a lack of match sharpness, or an inability to communicate with his teammates.

What I foresee in this match is: Forget about the (possible new-look) defence. Forget about the (depleted) midfield. Our attack is what will win this match for us. Everything hinges on Rooney's spark, Saha maintaining his free-scoring streak in this competition, and van Nistelrooy hopefully finding his scoring boots again.

Stuff which I still don't understand: Manchester United have a one ball advantage in this fixture. Some people might feel that they might not want to risk it and sit back tightly for a draw - they'd still go through anyway. However, at Old Trafford, the fans will be baying for Blackburn's blood after the earlier humiliation, and morale is sky-high following the win over the Merseysiders, so I expect Man Utd to be firing on all cylinders. And like I said, you can't expect to field a strikeforce of Saha and van Nistelrooy with Rooney running free behind and not have some goals. I would expect Man Utd to win comfortably, with the one goal margin not a problem. It could even be two or three (at least, I hope).

Disclaimer: The above views are purely my own two-cents' worth. In other words, I cannot and will not guarantee that my predictions are accurate. If you want to bet on the game, do so at your own risk. Also, please bet responsibly and within your means regardless of how "sure thing" that game may appear to be. As the old saying goes, "The Ball Is Round". Good luck.


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