Manchester United vs Sporting Braga: Guessing Fergie's Starting 11
With the international break now over, fixtures are piling up for Manchester United, with the next few weeks seeing the Old Trafford club play twice a week. Next on the list is the Champions League home tie against SC Braga on Tuesday.
Victory in this tie will leave the Red Devils a win away from qualification from the group stages. After the misadventures of last season's Champions League campaign, Sir Alex Ferguson would obviously want his charges to win this game and the next one against the same opponents to seal qualification at the earliest.
However, team selection for the upcoming match is complicated by Sunday's fixture against league leaders and current EPL high-flyers Chelsea. Already Sir Alex Ferguson has revealed part of his plans by announcing both Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will be rested for the match against Braga.
This is what Ferguson had to say about team selection (via manutd.com):
I'm not playing Rio tomorrow. We have a game on Sunday against Chelsea and it's a big one for us so I'm leaving a couple of players out. Rio and Patrice Evra are the older players – those are the two main changes for tomorrow...
Even though he did give hints about the constitution of his defence, Ferguson's choices in midfield and attack are still unknown. Here is a look at the 11 players who will most likely make Manchester United's starting lineup on Tuesday.
An Inexperienced Defence
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With Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra sitting out the upcoming Champions League game, Scott Wootton and Alex Büttner are likely to get the chance to make their Champions League debuts. The other two players in defence are likely to be unchanged; we will probably see Jonny Evans as the other central defender and Rafael Da Silva at right-back.
Anders Lindegaard will surely get his chance as the goalkeeper, with Sir Alex preferring David De Gea in the last few Premier League games. It will be interesting to observe Lindegaard in the Champions League, especially considering how well De Gea did in the last two matches in the competition.
The choice of Wootton at centre-back as a partner to Evans is an easy choice, given that no first-team central defender is fit at the moment. While there was talk of Chris Smalling making his comeback against Stoke, his name did not make an appearance on the team sheet. It now seems that the Braga tie is too early for Smalling and Wootton is the favorite to take his Champions League bow.
With United's much publicized problems in defence, it will be interesting to see how Evans and Wootton perform. Evans has been United's most consistent defender this season, but this game will see him shoulder the additional responsibility of being the senior partner and the organizer of the defence.
Additionally, at left-back, Büttner is likely to come in for the much-criticized Evra. Another good performance from the Dutchman could very well lead to renewed calls for Büttner to replace Evra in the big games.
This likely back four will only have 48 Champions League appearances between them, so it will be illuminating to see how they cope with the threat posed by their Portuguese opponents.
Likely Four: Rafael, Wootton, Evans, Büttner
Possible Surprise: It is quite possible that Chris Smalling has been deemed fit behind closed doors and could make an appearance tomorrow.
A Diamond in Midfield
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The midfield is where Sir Alex Ferguson has the most options, both tactically and in terms of personnel. However, one can expect him to revert to the diamond formation that worked so well in the last Champions League game. The choice of the diamond becomes all the more attractive considering the inexperience of the personnel likely to play in defence.
The two possibilities for the holding role at the base of the midfield are Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Carrick, however, has had a pretty busy last couple of weeks with appearances for both Manchester United and England. Fletcher, who is being gradually eased back into the team, will likely get his chance, as Ferguson looks to benefit from squad rotation over the course of the next few weeks.
It is also highly likely that Anderson and Tom Cleverley will once again assume the role of the shuttlers in the diamond. Anderson had a decent cameo against Stoke in the weekend's game, while Cleverley would have recovered from his exertions in the international break with England. The dynamic duo provide United with the drive and energy so necessary for the midfield to work, making them the prime candidates to start against Braga.
While Wayne Rooney has started at the tip of the diamond in all the games where United have played this formation, it seems more likely that Shinji Kagawa will get his chance to play in that role. Kagawa's movement, vision and passing makes him an ideal candidate to perform this role, and one can imagine his through-balls to Rooney and Robin van Persie being United's most potent attacking threat.
Likely Four: Darren Fletcher; Anderson, Tom Cleverley; Shinji Kagawa
Possible Surprise: If Sir Alex decides to start Rooney at the tip of the diamond, then we could see Kagawa replacing either Anderson or Cleverley as one of the shuttlers.
A Wayne and Robin Show
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In attack, it is difficult to see Sir Alex Ferguson go for any other combination except that of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. Both the Manchester United strikers scored and created goals at the weekend, and their flexible fluid play with Danny Welbeck was the highlight of United's attacking game.
The temptation probably exists for Sir Alex to rest one of his two leading strikers to keep them fresh for the battles ahead. However, there can be no simpler gameplan than for him to unleash both Rooney and RvP on the Portuguese side and bury them under an avalanche of goals. A good attacking performance with lots of goals would reinforce the side's confidence going into the all-important weekend game at Stamford Bridge.
If Fergie did decide to start with Rooney, RvP and Kagawa in the same team, it would open up a multitude of possibilities. We could see them replicate the rotation seen over the weekend, which would leave the Braga defense with a huge headache.
Likely Two: Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie
Possible Surprise: If Sir Alex decides Javier Hernandez needs a game, he may decide to start with him and van Persie up front with Rooney at the tip of the diamond.
Possible Tactical Tweaks
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While Manchester United will likely start in a diamond formation, the availability of a near-full strength squad in midfield and attack gives them the flexibility to adopt alternate tactics during the match.
Here are a few of those possibilities:
The Christmas Tree formation: Sir Alex Ferguson could decide midway through the match to drop one of his strikers into the hole to play a 4-3-2-1. Expect this if Braga remain compact and United fail to provide enough supply to the two frontmen.
Back to the basic 4-4-1-1: With three fit wingers in Nani, Antonio Valencia and the returning Ashley Young, Ferguson could even revert to the class United 4-4-1-1. If this turns out to the formation chosen at some point in the match, one could expect Nani and Young to make their appearance on the pitch.
Whatever the lineup and tactics adopted, though, Manchester United should have enough firepower in their arsenal to make it three wins out of three in the Champions League and move a step closer to the knockout stages.