Soccernet Preview: Manchester United v Chelsea
Give or take the undoubted challenge of Arsenal, Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford is the type of game usually billed as a title-decider. Yet, given the events of midweek, we are presented with a vision of a brave new world for Manchester United. The doomsday scenario has descended; Wayne Rooney will not be playing in a game for United in which a win would take them a huge distance towards the twinned-target of a 19th top-division title and with it an unprecedented fourth successive championship.
United's form-line had been very strong until a Champions League first-leg 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich that looks on paper to be a passable result but may well have yielded disastrous collateral damage. Rooney is set to be out for two to three weeks, and that will give Chelsea's already teeming confidence a further boost.
Consecutive thumping domestic results have drawn Chelsea out of the gloom of their European exit to Inter Milan and papered over the cracks of a defensive injury crisis that sees just John Terry of Carlo Ancelotti's figurative first-choice back four available for selection. Yuri Zhirkov and Paulo Ferreira may well be weak points to target for Sir Alex Ferguson in a game that most would see as being a pitched battle in midfield.
Manchester United player in focus: Dimitar Berbatov. Time for a shy man to take centre stage? The Bulgarian has often found himself riding the pine of the subs' bench in United's biggest games of this season. Rooney's absence allows him the chance to show Sir Alex Ferguson he can be a consistent performer. Last week's well-taken brace at Bolton offered solace to the Scot in a 4-0 win where United showed they could perform well without their leading scorer. Berbatov scored last season against Chelsea and will hope for more of the same standard of defending that allowed him to breeze home the third in a 3-0 rout.
Chelsea player in focus: Joe Cole. No longer even an England hopeful after Fabio Capello spoke of "not the player I remember" but many still believe that a return to a semblance of form could offer his country a different option in South Africa. The overriding belief is that he has not recovered his fitness to a level to complete matches. Of his 19 starts, he has finished just eight matches and last week, despite playing in a 7-1 rout of Aston Villa, he still did not provide an assist or get on the scoresheet, before making his regulation departure to the subs' bench. His presence here, however, may serve as an audition for a Michael Owen-style free transfer to United in the summer. Ferguson is a long-time admirer, right back to the days at West Ham when he would constantly ask Harry Redknapp about "young Cole".
Key battle: Florent Malouda v Gary Neville. Of a team in free-scoring form and even allowing for the goal-glut Frank Lampard finds himself in there can be little doubt that Frenchman Malouda has converted himself into Chelsea's form player of 2010. A slow-burner at Stamford Bridge who only really found his feet under the aegis of Guus Hiddink, Malouda's athleticism has terrorised plenty of right-backs in the last 12 months. Gary Neville, meanwhile, was the subject of many a tribute to his resurrection in midweek before he then committed the absent-minded handball that granted Bayern the free-kick from which they scored their equalising goal. It is hugely possible that Neville will find himself facing Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Malouda in the space of eight days and Malouda is no slouch in that company.
Tactics: This is a game expected to be short on midfield space as both prefer a nominal 4-3-3 that converts to 4-5-1 in defensive situations. United will lack the counter-attacking pace that Rooney allows but Berbatov can provide a link-man to release the likes of Nani and Antonio Valencia, who may well be deployed far enough forward to stop Yuri Zhirkov's overlapping and perhaps take advantage of his lack of experience as a Chelsea full-back.
Quotes: Carlo Ancelotti on memories of Old Trafford in his days at AC Milan: "Old Trafford is a fantastic stadium not only for Sir Alex but also for me. The Champions League victory of 2003 is the best memory in my career."
Manchester United's press office breaks the news we have all been waiting on: "We're pleased to report that Wayne has not suffered a fracture. The scan revealed only minor ligament damage."
Manchester United team news: Wayne Rooney is out for two to three weeks, but United could have Owen Hargreaves on the bench, with John O'Shea also close to a return.
Chelsea team news: Didier Drogba has recovered and will start the match. Michael Essien (knee), Ashley Cole (ankle), Ricardo Carvalho (ankle) and Jose Bosingwa (knee) are all sidelined along with Branislav Ivanovic (knee).
Probable Manchester United team (4-3-3): Van Der Sar, Neville, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Giggs, Park, Fletcher Nani, Valencia, Berbatov.
Probable Chelsea team (4-3-3): Cech, Ferreira, Terry, Alex, Zhirkov, Mikel, Ballack, Lampard, Malouda, Drogba, Anelka.
Soccernet prediction: In many ways, a bloodless draw would suit both managers. Although it would take the destiny of the title out of Chelsea's hands, they may well fancy a Rooney-less United to slip up further down the tracks.