Semi-final first leg time and a visit to Stamford Bridge by our rivals(?) Manchester United. On the back of differing opening matches in the FA cup, Chelsea not playing to their full capacity, but still recording a 3-1 victory and Man U suffering an embarrassing home draw to non-league Exeter City. Both teams made a host of changes, including Chelsea debuts for Watt, Morais and later Jarosik, and Man U bringing in some young players alongside seasoned pros of the like Phil Neville and injury prone Wes Brown.
The Carling Cup often used to blood players desperate for first team opportunities and to rest first team regulars in need of a break, especially now after the hectic Christmas schedule. Ferguson was adamant that he will stick with a similar line up that landed his team a semi-final opportunity, but after lamenting the performance against Exeter as one of the worst in his reign as United manager, there is suspicion he may include a number of more senior players than in previous Carling Cup matches. The likelihood of this may have been influenced by the chorus of booing by the home fans at the end of the abysmal cup draw. With an 11 point gulf in between the two Premiership sides and a new resolve at Chelsea he may feel that a win will start the blip he and now Wenger continue to whine about week in, week out. Unfortunately for him, we know better!
On form United player Giggs will again be missing after picking up a hamstring injury in the controversial game against Spurs. Howard should continue in goal and a recall of Ferdinand will certainly show Ferguson’s intent on a victory over Chelsea, as his return in the league has improved their performances at the back and subsequently their league position, albeit they still remain below Chelsea and Arsenal. Midfield could see the return of Scholes also hitting form in recent games and ageing captain Keane may also get a game to strengthen the midfield. United team selection all depends on the extent Ferguson goes to appease the fans and considers victory important in the psychological battle for the Premiership.
Robben is suspended for Chelsea and both central defenders Huth and Carvalho out with respective ankle and toe injuries. Terry and Gallas, our brilliant pairing demonstrated by us having conceded zero goals when both playing in the middle, you would expect to start. Ideally a battered Terry would again be rested, but cover his hard to find in this specific area, with Smertin and Watt unlikely to cope at this level. Bridge wasn’t included in the FA cup squad after suffering the worst from illness, out of the significant number of the squad and management affected, according to reporter Neil Barnett. Bridge may be fit enough to get at least a bit-part role if the full 90 minutes can’t be managed. With Parker also a long-term injury Makelele should return in the holding role. He is certainly missed when not playing; one of the players of the season so far, but who out of all the players forming the spine of the team isn’t this season? Lampard also returns after a one-match suspension, the last of the five booking picked up in a challenge that regrettably broke Alonso’s ankle. Lampard apologised in interviews after the match and also was reported as phoning him later that day. Kezman picked up an ankle injury against Scunthorpe and is the only doubt out of the strikers. With Gudjohnsen playing the whole of the last game, Drogba is the most likely to continue up front, although Mourinho may decided to stick with his version of the 4-4-2 rather than the 4-3-3 favoured in the league.
A convincing win in this game not only will send us well on our way to a cup final and the chance of silverware, but may also further dent, or with the lead we already have, derail any United attempt to catch us in the Premiership. A defeat could cause upset and put the tough tie away to Spurs on the weekend, who are one of the form teams in the Premiership, in jeopardy of anything but a win. Remember away goals DO NOT count double in the Carling cup, in the unlikely event that our airtight defence is breeched.
For those opting not to attend this match, the game is live on Sky Sports 1. Coverage starts at 19.00; kick off is a slightly later time than usual at 20.00.
Score Prediction: 1-0 win.