Originally published online for Sabotage Times on February 23 2013.
The Premier League title may seem all but secured at this early stage, but dropped points today could let City right back in again…
We’ve all been there. You’re strolling down the street, taking the whole world in your stride as you strut about your daily business. The sun is shining and an attractive stranger smiles at you, distracting you from the laborious task of placing one foot in front of the other in steady succession. Mid-step, your toe catches the pavement and you’re sent flying into a world of scuffed knees, bruised egos and public humiliation, landing in a sprawled heap of physical pain and embarrassment.
QPR are that loose snag of ground; a trip hazard flagstone jutting out to sendManchester United stumbling on their rickety path to an unprecedented 20thleague title. A quick glance at the current standings suggests today’s encounter at Loftus Road should be little more than a formality – a landslide for the Premier League’s current summit versus a team sinking below sea level. However, United must stay mindful and watch their step. Over the past two seasons, Sir Alex’s side have slipped up to supposedly weaker opponents, losing 3-2 against Blackburn last year and 2-1 at Wolves in 2010/11.
Pride comes before the fall, and with puffed up talk of an unlikely treble colouring the build-up to each and every fixture at present, complacency and a lack of focus could see United tumble. It’s telling that the two previous results above came after dominant 5-0 and 3-1 wins against Wigan an Aston Villa respectively. Backed into a corner at the foot of the table, and playing hosts at their claustrophobic home ground, Queens Park Rangers will require a professional job to avoid any mishaps.
Having been rested for the FA Cup victory over Reading on Monday, Robin van Persie should return to United’s first team, with Wayne Rooney travelling with the squad but unlikely to pay any real part in the fixture. Nani is likely to be handed another opportunity to show that he can find consistency again, eighteen months on from his most productive period in a Manchester United jersey. For the R’s, Bobby Zamora is a doubt while Loïc Rémy remains out of action, meaning Jamie Mackie may make an appearance upfront.
The match will likely feature many gritty skirmishes on the flanks – a scenario ideal for Ashley Young who could start on the left for United. Offering better shape and diligence in defence, he is a hard worker and efficient build-up player. Danny Welbeck is the perfect player to outfox and out-run QPR’s Christopher Samba who continues to struggle for match fitness, and should also start.
Shaun Derry and Clint Hill will be key for QPR – two warhorse destroyers who have been the club’s standout performers this season, standing up from a star-studded roster to be counted rather than cowering. Expect to see both veterans make their fair share of tackles while sticking to United’s dangermen like glue.
As QPR’s most unpredictable talent, Adel Taarabt could come in for some special attention. While he is nowhere near the levels of Gareth Bale and Cristian Ronaldo, he remains a player able to make things happen from nothing. The task of marking him out of the game may act as something of a dress rehearsal for Phil Jones’ likely understudy in advance of the home leg against Real Madrid.
Due to the conditions of his loan move, Fábio in ineligible to play at left-back for Rangers. The Brazilian has been in fine form this season, benefitting from the exposure to first team Premier League football. Although still behind his brother in terms of development, he has the potential to catch up and perhaps even overtake is sibling. All he needs is the opportunity to do so. Armand Traoré is set to step in in his place.
Chris Smalling may get the nod above Rafael at right-back. Sir Alex Ferguson is a manager who often sticks to the patterns of his own tendencies, especially against teams of a certain style or standing. With fears of wide balls being fired out to the corners, the inclusion of Smalling should add some extra aerial bite to Manchester United backline’s right side. Rio Ferdinand will likely pair up with Jonny Evans in defence, with Nemanja Vidić required to fend off Norwich’s muscular forwards next weekend and therefore likely to be rested in line with Ferguson’s injury management and rotation policy.
Teams have set up to attack United recently, and with that in mind Harry Redknapp may well start Esteban Granero in midfield to speed up transitions and counters. Sharp and fast balls out to the flanks will be QPR’s best chance of getting behind United’s defence and causing on the break, a threat multiplied by the tidy technique and accuracy of the classy Spaniard. Stéphane M’Bia will play the role of linkman between Derry and the playmaker.
For Manchester United, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick will resume normal service in the middle of the park. Their understanding and on-field chemistry has improved significantly over the course of this season, and while the pairing is something of a default due to a lack of other options, both players seem to bring the best out of each other for the good of the team.
United’s game plan will revolved around controlling possession while relying on their wide-man to cut through QPR’s lines, as well as providing width. QPR won’t sit back however – they can’t rely on damage limitation and must attempt to get something from this game to push on with their unlikely resistance to what looks to be an inevitable relegation. Redknapp will look to catch Manchester United out and deliver fast, quality balls over the top and wide to Taarabt and Shaun Wright-Philips, who will attempt to beat Patrice Evra in a pure foot race down the right.
The ensuing match is likely to be chaotic, with end-to-end battles fought up and down each flank. With their extra man in midfield, QPR could dominate the middle if they can disrupt Carrick’s rhythm. Should that happen, United fans may well be stuck with the prospect of watching their side once again surrender the initiative to a side at the wrong end of the table, inviting unnecessary pressure and danger upon their defence and goalkeeper. Watch your step Sir Alex.
QPR (4-5-1): César; Traoré, Samba, Hill, Onuoha; Derry, M’Bia, Granero, Wright-Philips, Taarabt; Mackie.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Evra, Evans, Ferdinand, Smalling; Cleverley, Carrick; Young, Welbeck, Nani; van Persie.