Managers’ forward thinking could prove crucial in the Champions League’s only all-English affair
By Alan Smith
As with Manchester United, much will depend on Chelsea’s overall shape as to who gets the nod up front. If Carlo Ancelotti sticks with 4-4-2, as he has done for a number of weeks, it seems a straight fight between Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka for the two attacking slots; that’s if Ancelotti doesn’t surprise everyone by picking Salomon Kalou, as he did for the recent win over Manchester City.
That would be a major shock, though, just as leaving out Drogba would also be surprising after the big Ivorian, during Saturday’s draw at Stoke, looked something like his old rampaging self. Apart from scoring a great diving header, Drogba’s movement and appetite were encouraging.
That said, it’s difficult second-guessing Ancelotti these days, because since Torres arrived the Italian has constantly chopped and changed his strikers in an attempt to find the right combination.
Fair to say that he hasn’t succeeded yet. Fair to say, too, that the new 4-4-2 system, introduced to incorporate Torres, still needs working on after 4-3-3 had become so successfully ingrained at Stamford Bridge.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike tonight’s opponents, Chelsea don’t boast any natural wingers, players who can provide regular service from the flanks.
As much as Ramires has improved since arriving in London, the Brazilian naturally comes inside from his right midfield post, as does Florent Malouda on the left, albeit to a lesser extent. This can crowd the strikers who then have to depend on difficult passes threaded through the middle.
Another problem for Ancelotti is that both Torres and Drogba are used to working on their own – the Spaniard for Liverpool, often ahead of Steven Gerrard, and Drogba at the apex of Chelsea’s old attack. As a result, they’ve now got to adjust, to learn to work in pairs, a challenge that hasn’t been conquered overnight.
In his favour, Torres’s movement has been excellent at times in terms of pulling away from his marker. But with no goals after eight games, confidence is low when it comes to shooting. He just needs to take a chance, even if the ball lies on his weaker left side.
But the club’s record signing will surely play tonight, probably with Drogba. Ninth time lucky, perhaps, for the £50 million man?
With the home leg to come, I just wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson will be quite as adventurous as he was in the league at Stamford Bridge last month when he plumped for an open 4-4-2 line-up, no doubt guessing that his opponents would do the same. Before that, Ferguson had always matched up with Chelsea’s old shape, anxious to avoid getting outnumbered in midfield.
For the same reason presumably, the United manager started with only one striker at West Ham on Saturday, before sending on Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov to help out Wayne Rooney.
It will be interesting, therefore, to see what Ferguson does here. With six goals in seven games, the razor-sharp Hernandez is certainly the man in form. He also dovetails well with Rooney by constantly threatening in behind with his extraordinary pace, so freeing up room for his partner to work.
Yet Ferguson might think back to March 1 and remember how his ‘Little Pea’ struggled to hold up the ball when Chelsea started pressing in the second half. He might also consider how Berbatov manipulated the ball with such beautiful precision during United’s stunning comeback at Upton Park.
Spoilt for choice then? Well, there’s an element of that. United can definitely boast more strikers on song. But this isn’t the time to be getting gung-ho. An away goal, as always, would go down very well, but Ferguson’s careful attitude will be reflected in the way he uses his front men.
Rooney will play, don’t worry about that, even though he didn’t train yesterday. As for who lines up alongside, it might be a question of using either Hernandez or Berbatov as the focal point, with Rooney dropping back when necessary to bolster midfield.
Alternatively, Saturday’s angry hat-trick hero could move across to the left where he’s played so often in the Champions League. And with the versatile Antonio Valencia and Nani also available, Ferguson beats Ancelotti for possible permutations.
That’s got to be handy at this delicate stage when tactics can play a vital part. Maybe not as vital, though, as the team fielding the greatest goal threat.