On this same weekend last year Manchester United faced Aston Villa at Old Trafford having just suffered a 1-4 home defeat against second placed Liverpool, immediately followed by an away 0-2 loss to Fulham. Their title chances were well and truly on the line as Villa led 2-1 with 10 minutes remaining but as he had done so many times before, Sir Alex Ferguson pulled a rabbit out of his hat by throwing unknown 17 year old striker Federico Macheda into battle for the last half hour.
After Cristiano Ronaldo somehow grabbed an equaliser ten minutes from time, Macheda found himself half a yard of space inside the box 3 minutes into injury time to somehow conjure up a sensational winner. Sir Alex may again need to find another rabbit from the same hat at Old Trafford on Saturday as United go head to head with second placed Chelsea.
This will be a titanic clash which may potentially be decisive in the race for the title. With just one point separating the two front runners it’s all to play for with five matches remaining after the crunch meeting. The champions will get their first taste of life without Wayne Rooney after he injured his ankle in Munich on Tuesday, but United will still pose a serious threat to the visiting Blues, having won 10 and drawn one of the 11 league games in which Rooney hasn’t featured since the start of 2008-09. Dimitar Berbatov is also enjoying a rich vein of form, having scored eight goals in his last nine Premier League starts for the Red Devils
Chelsea will be full of confidence following their 7-1 demolition job against Aston Villa at the weekend, a result they themselves recorded without the presence of their star striker, Didier Drogba. As well as Drogba, midfielder Florent Malouda is sure to be one of Chelsea’ dangermen. Their problems remain in defence with Ashley Cole, Ricardo Carvalho and Branislav Ivanovic remaining long term injury doubts for the Blues but powerhouse midfielder Michael Essien is set for a return to fitness in the not too distant future.
Here is a look at the key battles which could determine the outcome of the game:
Berbatov vs Terry: With Rooney expected to be out for four weeks, Berbatov must now step up to the plate and prove to all his doubters why United paid £30 million for his services. Having scored just 12 Premier League goals this season to Rooney’s 26, the Bulgarian will be looking to close that gap in the coming weeks, starting on Saturday. It certainly won’t be easy going up against Chelsea’s skipper Johm Terry, who will be more determined than ever to help his side come away from Old Trafford with a win and regain top spot in the table.
Neville vs Malouda: Neville has edged his way back into Sir Alex’s starting eleven in recent weeks at the expense of the far less experienced Rafael Da Silva. Despite being given the run around by Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery on Tuesday night, Neville is likely to get the nod again where he will be in direct competition with Ribery’s fellow French international Malouda. The left sided midfielder has scored five goals in his last five starts and has turned provider on several occasions during that time. Neville will have to be switched on throughout the ninety minutes and use all his experience to handle one of Chelsea’s main dangermen.
Ferdinand vs Drogba: Although Drogba was an unused substitute in Chelsea’s 7-1 drubbing of Aston Villa, Carlo Ancelotti is bound to recall the Ivorian. He may have only scored one goal in eleven meetings against United but his presence and power alone can cause problems at any time in any Premier League defence. Nevertheless, United have only conceded one goal in their last five league outings and if Ferdinand can utilise his pace and ability to read the game, coupled with Nemanja Vidic’s strength and aggression, the champions will stand an excellent chance of nullifying Drogba’s threat
This massive clash also brings two very successful managers together, with Ferguson and Ancelotti desperate to get one over their rival. The two men have met on six occasions as managers so far, with Sir Alex enjoying just the one victory to Ancelotti’s five. Yet Old Trafford is a fortress for United, who have conceded just once in Chelsea’s last four visits.
United should be able to at least avoid defeat in order to retain their slender lead at the top of the table but if Sir Alex manages to find another Easter bunny lurking in some dark corner, his men may go on to grab all the three points.