Georgina Turner
Friday April 2nd, 2010

Chelsea visits Manchester United on Saturday for what is being billed as the critical match in this year's Premiership title race. And though both teams have at least one game to follow that will further test their mettle -- United has yet to visit neighbor City; Chelsea travels to Tottenham in two weeks and goes to Anfield to face Liverpool on the penultimate weekend of the season -- this is certainly the game that could put some daylight between the two.

With just a point between first and second -- and Arsenal only three points back in third -- with six games left, the top of the table is tight enough to have prompted Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore to raise the possibility of a title playoff if the teams cannot be separated come May 9. However, the Premier League's top pair has been similarly inseparable at Easter on three previous occasions and each time the title has been comfortably won: Manchester United (1992-93, finished 10 points clear), Arsenal (2001-02, seven points clear) and United again (2008-09, four points clear, despite Liverpool's strong finish to the season).

We've managed 147 years of Association Football without a playoff, so it is unlikely to become a reality. But it is perhaps a measure of how little there is to choose between this season's contenders that the idea has even been addressed. Both United and Chelsea have looked more fallible than usual, each losing as many matches by February as they typically drop in entire seasons (11 combined losses so far). The names of some of their vanquishers -- Burnley, Wigan -- have surprised as much as the results. Even so, both teams have also put on some impressive displays: 48 of United's 76 goals have gone unanswered, and 39 of Chelsea's 82.

The outcome of Saturday's match gets even harder to forecast when you factor in the regularity with which both managers alter their lineups. Sir Alex Ferguson has not named the same starting 11 in consecutive games for nearly two years, a stretch of 117 games. The Blues have racked up 50, with Carlo Ancelotti never having named an unchanged side in his time there. For both managers, the most prominent decision-making centers on their respective midfields because both have eyes for one striker: Ancelotti has said that a fit Didier Drogba is a picked Drogba, and Ferguson has the selection of Dimitar Berbatov pretty much forced upon him by Wayne Rooney's sprained ankle and a lack of genuine alternatives.

Ferguson's defensive midfield selection in the 2-1 Champions League defeat at Bayern Munich on Tuesday did not work well at all; Bayern bypassed the central three -- Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher -- with discomfiting ease as it enjoyed close to 60 percent of possession. That said, Carrick and Fletcher would be sensible picks against Chelsea. Though Berbatov works harder than he is typically given credit for, United's midfield five will require industry and good distribution if the Bulgarian is to be productive. Along with Park Ji-Sung, who would seem a natural selection in such a crucial match, both are capable of breaking up the play and Carrick in particular helps turn defense quickly into attack.

Without the ball, Nani struggled to have a big impact at the Allianz Arena, but playing him and Antonio Valencia in wide positions would maximize the potential supply into Berbatov, as well as adding a goal threat should either find himself with an opportunity to cut in. In United's recent 4-0 victory against Bolton, Nani's movement and delivery from the wing was massively influential in the late-goal haul. If Nani's mojo is up, the absence of injured Chelsea fullbacks Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa hints at a fruitful 90 minutes.

Having watched United lose to Bayern in such unexpected fashion, Ancelotti could feel that his side, still skipping from that scintillating 7-1 win over Villa, has a psychological advantage. But managers who suggest that a loss like the one United suffered in the Champions League will affect its performance in a key league game are usually guilty of political levels of bluff and bluster. Chelsea was eight points clear of United earlier in the season, a memory that will linger, and if you believe former player Marcel Desailly's scathing assessment of the Blues this week, it is the midfield that has let them down. In fact, it's likely that Ancelotti's midfield deployment for the game will be the decisive factor.

As I've said before, Chelsea can wreak havoc in a 4-3-3, but that is a tough shape to maintain with Drogba spearheading the attack. In any case, fielding 4-3-3 at Old Trafford is the kind of statement you might admire from Jose Mourinho (the last Chelsea manager to win here, in 2005), but one that would seem wildly incautious from Ancelotti. Which leaves the diamond or the Christmas tree, neither of which rules out a starting place for Michael Ballack, who will have to have a better game than he has managed all season to justify his selection. If so, he and John Mikel Obi should make it a decent tussle in the center of the park.

However, Frank Lampard might prefer to see Portuguese schemer Deco alongside Mikel, if only because it adds another player to help get the ball forward. That would leave Lampard free to look for goal-scoring opportunities. The space in front of him will be congested, mind you, unless attackers Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka make use of the width of the pitch. If United left back Patrice Evra plays fast and loose like he did against Bayern, those wide spaces will be worth exploiting. Though the 4-3-2-1 or 4-1-2-1-2 lacks the dynamism of the 4-3-3, Chelsea has failed to score in only one game this season, at troublesome Birmingham, so there is no reason to suspect that the Blues' attacking intentions will be stymied by a shift back to either formation.

A United victory would convince most at Old Trafford that the title is theirs to keep this year; a Chelsea win would put the Blues back into a slender lead. But despite the match's box-office appeal, the sky-high stakes will encourage not a must-win attitude but a must-not-lose approach, which means a draw is entirely possible.

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