March 6, 2009
The second leg of the Champions League last 16 is here. And the two weeks between the first and second legs have been quite eventful.
For starters, Inter came from behind to draw, 3-3, at home with Roma in unconvincing fashion. They were then thrashed, 3-0, by Sampdoria in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final and face an uphill task to make it through.
On the other hand, United grabbed some more silverware, the Carling Cup this time, as they beat Tottenham Hotspur, 4-1, on penalties. They continued their winning streak in the Premier League and seem to have one hand on the trophy already.
In both matches, United were a shadow of what they were against Inter, and yet they have still managed to grind out results.
No prizes for guessing who's showing championship form.
On the down side, Edwin van der Sar conceded for the first time in four months with a howler against Newcastle United.
There may be more good news for United if they manage to see off Fulham in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup on Saturday.
The 0-0 draw at the San Siro seems like ages ago already. Fergie appears to have got one over on his old foe in the first leg, or at least he'd like to think so.
While it may be "advantage United" after the first leg, the game is far from decided. Let's see what United got right in the first leg and what they need to get right in the second leg to cement their place in the next round.
The Back Four: A Watertight Defence
One of the standout features of United's performance in the first leg was their flawless defence. The much-hyped attacking duo of Inter were kept at bay, and comfortably so, even with a patched-up United defence.
The stand-in duo of Jonny Evans and John O'Shea were outstanding on the night. This aspect of United's game will have to be as good, if not better, should United go on to the next round.
The return of Nemanja Vidic, at the expense of Evans, will add even more stability to the defence. The Serbian's presence will also give an added advantage to United at set-pieces and corners. Vidic and Ferdinand should be joined in defence by O'Shea and Evra.
First casualty of the second leg—Jonny Evans.
The Midfield: Engine Room of United
Though United did not completely overwhelm Inter in midfield, their performance was a revelation considering how often United have put in poor away performances in Europe.
Fletcher was outstanding as he usually is during European games. Carrick was the creative head of the department, spraying out passes and switching the game from flank to flank.
One of the main reasons for United's dominant display was that they did not allow Inter to play to their full potential because they killed the game in midfield.
To replicate the performance at the San Siro, minus the scoreline, United will have to prevent Inter's midfield from hitting top gear once again.
Whether or not Fergie will tamper with his midfield will play a decisive role in the outcome of the game. While playing three in the middle of the park helped them thwart Inter's creative force at the San Siro, United will have to be more aggressive at home.
So playing three in midfield is certainly ruled out.
Speaking of certainty, someone destined to start this game will be Paul Scholes.
Scholes will have overcome the travails of the Carling Cup final to play in the second leg, having missed out on the action in the first tie. Carrick will most certainly partner Scholes in midfield, resigning Fletcher to the bench.
Casualty No. 2—Darren Fletcher.
The Wingers: Flying on the Flanks
This is one department where Fergie would be better off not tampering.
With Ronaldo and Park on either flank, the full-backs had a torrid time at the San Siro. Fergie will be hoping that his wingers put in a similar performance at Old Trafford.
Park's workrate will be critical, not only in attack, but also in cutting down the attacking prowess of Inter's full-backs.
Maicon has been particularly influential in Inter's attacks down the wings. United will be doing themselves a huge favor if they restrict Maicon to Inter's half of the pitch. With Quaresma away to Chelsea on loan, Inter's options on the wings are somewhat limited.
With the ability of United's wingers to switch sides, Inter's full-backs will be assured of a busy day on the pitch. After Nani's exploits in the final of the Carling Cup, Park and Ronaldo need not fear the drop.
No casualties on the wings.
The Attack: Some More Tampering
The new-look United attack proved to be a handful for Inter's backline in the first leg. Ryan Giggs in particular gave the center backs all sorts of problems with his positioning and guile.
He tormented the defence with his marauding and mazy runs that were reminiscent of the winger's early days. His performance will, however, not guarantee him a position in the starting lineup as Scholes and Giggs starting together is highly improbable.
United will most likely opt for for the more conventional pairing of Berbatov and Rooney after the pair of them scored against Newcastle United in midweek.
Rooney will play a much deeper role than usual to help out the midfield and create problems for his marker. While Berbatov was largely ineffective in the first leg, the Gaffer will still stick by his marksman because of his proficiency as a target man and a focal point upfront.
Casualty No.3—Ryan Giggs.
In the Hot Seat: Being SAF
SAF will be aware of the threat Mourinho poses by virtue of his experience in the league and his knowledge of United's game.
Ferguson will know full well that the only way to counter Mourinho's challenge will be to beat him at his own game: defence.
SAF will try to make sure that Inter do not score. At the same time, United will go all out in the first half to find that invaluable breach of the Inter goal.
Scholes will do the creative work, while Carrick will take up a more defensive role, providing cover to the back four. Anderson and Fletcher will be on the bench, with the duo likely to start against Fulham in the FA Cup quarterfinal over the weekend.
With Park and Ronaldo constantly harrowing the defenders, United will be hoping to score in the first half, or at least the first 60 minutes, before they go on the defensive and take off a striker for Fletcher to come on.
SAF will also hope that Berbatov, the sulking Bulgarian, will show up for this leg and Rooney's impressive return from injury will continue.
What the boss will be dreading is the situation where Inter score, and score late. That will mean that United have to score one more than Inter, cranking up the pressure.
Ferguson may start Park on the left side of the pitch so as to lessen Maicon's attacking influence in the game. Apart from that, how United deal with Cambiasso will be a talking point in the dressing room. The Argentine was easily Inter's Man of the Match in the first leg.
Inter's forwards had a poor day in the first leg and United will be hoping that their bad form continues.
It will also be interesting to see if Mourinho will stick with the Ibrahimovich-Adriano pairing or give Balotelli the nod ahead of Adriano. The youngster's inexperience might tilt the balance in Adriano's favor.
SAF will certainly try to script this game as he did against Barcelona in last season's semifinal. Whether he can prevent Jose's side from scoring at OT will be decisive.
My Verdict: Inter To Score, but United To Win
Making predictions for the biggies is often fruitless as they rarely turn out to be close to reality. Just for the record, I will go with a United win, though I think Inter will score.
United's biggest threat will be in the form of the returning duo of Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney.
Having said that, Mourinho is one of the very few managers with a positive record at Old Trafford. A classic example of that was his performance with Porto in 2004. A repeat of that showing will be enough for Mourinho's side to proceed to the next round.
Though a lot has changed between then and now, one would be foolish to rule out Mourinho. The wily Portuguese manager always has something up his sleeve.
Come Wednesday, the result will have far-reaching consequences. For Inter, a victory, or a score draw for that matter, will mean that their march towards their first Champions League trophy since 1965 will roll on.
For United, a victory would mean that their amazing journey this season will continue apace. Their quest for the invincible quintuple will continue. But to achieve such feats, one needs more than a little bit of luck.
Whether or not United will have that against Inter, only time will tell.