The headline-grabbing absentee for Manchester United is Robin van Persie with his knee problem, but the bigger issue may come at full-back. Patrice Evra is suspended, which will mean a start for Alexander Buttner, while Rafael was brought off at half-time in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Aston Villa with a tight thigh. He has insisted the issue was merely precautionary but he missed training on Monday and if he is ruled out United face major problems, with Antonio Valencia, who may drop back from midfield to cover, struggling with tendinitis. Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans both trained on Monday but both remain doubtful. Bayern are without the suspended centre-back Dante, while midfielder Thiago Alcantara went down with a knee ligament injury in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim.
If Rafael doesn’t make it, the likelihood is Valencia or Phil Jones at right-back with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic reprising their partnership at centre-back. They once seemed the ideal partnership – Ferdinand quick and a good reader of the game, Vidic all power and aggression – and in 2008-09 they helped set a Premier League record of 13 clean sheets in a row. As injuries and age have taken their toll, those days seem a long time ago now. In a sense, though, the fact that United are likely to be on the back foot for most of the game makes fielding them less of a gamble than in a more even contest: they can sit at the edge of the box and hold the line, the danger of them being turned lessened by the lack of space behind them. That them gives the option of using Jones at the back of midfield as a breakwater, looking to disrupt the flow of Bayern’s attacks, although given how United struggled to deal with Manchester City last week, it’s hard to see how much they can disrupt the European champions, particularly with a reserve left-back.
United tried a 4-3-3 against City last week and abandoned the experiment after 10 minutes. Against Bayern, it feels like small-blanket syndrome: there’s always going to be some part left exposed. If United had any aspirations to try to take Bayern on in open combat, they would need to use two wide men high up the pitch to try to pin in the opposing full-backs , but given how open that would leave a midfield that has struggled to cope even in the Premier League – and given David Moyes’s cautious instincts – it seems far more likely United will bunker down, look to weather the storm and hope they can nick something on the break.
The question then is whether they look to do that in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-3-3. The argument for 4-4-1-1 is that by playing Wayne Rooney behind Danny Welbeck, United would have pace on the break and a player whose natural position would leave him well-placed to close down Philipp Lahm, who sets the tempo from the back of the Bayern midfield. Or Shinji Kagawa, who played in four victories for Borussia Dortmund over Bayern, could play behind Rooney. Two banks of four are a natural defensive shape and would help protect the full-backs against Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but the issue is personnel. If Jones is used in a destructive role in the centre, it means choosing between Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs to partner him. Valencia, if fit, would be a natural fit on the right, but who on the left? Given Nani’s fall from favour, Ashley Young seems the only option.
With a 4-3-3, Jones could be flanked by Carrick and Giggs, two players who can be trusted to hold their position and not squander possession. Rooney would then be a lone striker with Valencia on the right and a major question again on the left. Welbeck’s pace would be an asset, and he might trouble Rafinha, attacking him on the inside, but that would leave Buttner isolated against Robben; if not him, though, Young again seems the only option.
Pep Guardiola is a master at adjusting his tactics for specific games and trying to second guess him is fruitless. With Dante suspended, though, it’s safe to assume Javi Martinez will step in alongside Jerome Boateng, with Lahm alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield in the absence of Thiago Alcantara. Given United are likely to sit deep, he may opt for a false nine in Gotze with Thomas Muller behind him as players adept at finding space amid thickets of opponents. Or he could opt for the more physical attributes of Mario Mandzukic and Toni Kroos, accepting crosses into a crowded area are inevitable part of a game against a side looking to hold them at arm’s length.
Strange things can happen, but it’s hard to see how United could hold off Bayern. Even 7.15 on a home win doesn’t seem tempting. Given the way United struggled to create anything in recent home games against Liverpool and City, Bayern to win to 0 at 2.45 looks appealing.