Manchester United vs. Chelsea Wednesday, 7.45pm kick-off UK time. I thought this might be worth writing for any American readers who are going to watch the game but who don't follow football (soccer) avidly..
Edwin Van Der Sar: Not in the same league as Schmeichel was, but solid enough. He's a tall, reliable keeper who sometimes seems a bit fragile, and is often left complaining about physical play when he goes into contact.
Petr Cech: Brave, a phenomenal shot stopper and good at coming for stuff in a crowded box, Cech is generally thought to be the best keeper in the league and one of the best in Europe, but he's made the odd mistake this season. I'm not great at evaluating keepers, so that's all I'm going to say
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic: Man Utd's Ferdinand and Vidic are a classic aggressive CB - covering CB pair, with Vidic superb at stepping out of defence to win the ball, and Rio terrific at covering behind. Their roles are a bit like safeties in the NFL, with one specialising in run support and one in pass coverage behind (though both players have to be able to do both jobs a bit). Man Utd paid £30m for Ferdinand because he's big, super-quick, a smooth athlete, he's good on the ball and he can be trusted one-on-one with even the best strikers. Early in his career he was criticised for being casual, but that's matured into real calmness under pressure, and this year he has been the league's best defender. Vidic is a big, brave, powerful man who's excellent in the air and makes good decisions. He needs to, because his speed over 15 or 20 yards is terrible, but it's testimony to his positioning, and United's covering, that he's so rarely exposed. Both players contribute dangerously at attacking set-pieces.
John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho: Again, one defender is an aggressive ball-winner and the other provides speedy cover. Most English football writers and fans have a ridiculous man-crush on Terry because of his macho character and style of play - he loves throwing himself in front of shots, playing with blood all over him and shouting a lot (and churlishly manhandling referees). As an athlete he leaves a lot to be desired, and if he's left one-on-one with any of the United strikers in space he will either give a foul away to stop the move or go to ground in a tackle aggressively and early, because over 15 or 20 yards he's toast. But when he's playing he puts a lot of good defensive pressure on the area in front of his defence - precisely the area Tevez likes to play in - and you can expect to see him stepping out aggressively to win headers in midfield. Again, he's a threat at set-pieces. Carvalho is the archetypal covering CB, reacting quickly to danger and covering the ground well, but he sometimes slashes at clearances and commits naughty fouls (shirt-tugging and sneaky handballs) in dangerous areas. If Terry hasn't recovered from his arm injury, Chelsea have a big problem.
Patrice Evra and Wes Brown: Wes Brown in Man Utd's worst regular starter - he's clumsy, one-footed, not that quick and very average in possession. If he was a cornerback, his 'hips' would be heavily criticised, and against good dribblers he spoends a lot of time off-balance (though, to be fair, he did surprisingly well against Messi in the semi). Ferguson seems to like his height and physical presence, and he compensates for his inadequacies as best he can through aggression and getting tight to his man early. Evra is a superb athlete, quick and explosive and with an engine that allows him to contribute at both ends of the pitch. He's dangerous in possession and expect to see him bombing on down the outside as the left-midfielder comes inside. Attackers never beat him for pace, though he's no great shakes defending the far post when crosses are coming in from the other side.
Ashley Cole and either Juliano Belletti or Michael Essien: Two or three years ago Ashley Cole was the world's best left-back, but having left Arsenal and been injured he doesn't seem to be quite on that level any more (he looks less explosive). He's still terrific, though; aggressive, still quick enough never to be beaten for pace and useful going forward. Belletti is good going forward too, but he's a terrible defender, marking badly, giving the ball away to strikers, panicking in his own box and he's been beaten by much smaller players for headed goals this year. I don't know whether Grant will select him or Essien - Essien is a beast, being quick, physically powerful and with extraordinary stamina. He's one of the best midfielders in the world, capable of doing any job and wherever he plays he will contribute energy and drive.
(each side will likely choose two of these players)
Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes and Anderson; Carrick is a great passer, very good at getting United's attackers the ball in space early (which makes a massive difference to how effective they can be), and he's brave with his passes, being willing to slap it into feet even in tight areas. Hargreaves works with a ferocious appetite, has a great selfless attitude and never stops running. He's scored some handy free-kicks this year as well. Scholes is a clever player with good vision who will find the odd great pass and is capable, occasionally, of pieces of outlandish skill, but I personally think he's being picked this season on sentiment (he missed United's last final through being suspended) as much as for sporting reasons. And his tackling is still terrible. Anderson is very strong on the ball, is a brave passer and can play further forward if necessary. I think he's going to be an exceptional player, but Ferguson seems to be leaving him out of big games at the moment.
Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien; Makelele is a very limited player; not a good passer, lightweight and not quick, but because he knows it he's super-disciplined and will just protect the defence all day. I think he is physically declining and that one of Liverpool's goals in the semi was partly the result of his lack of athleticism (Kuyt's in the first leg). Lampard and Essien both have amazing stamina, and Lampard's goal record from midfield is extraordinary. Because he does everything quickly he often looks out of the game if things aren't working, but he's very important to Chelsea. Ballack is big, strong, good in the air and has a nasty streak, but he's also talented on the ball, has a good shot, good vision and is a threat at set-pieces. Mikel is very skillful and physically strong on the ball but he's got a short fuse and isn't disciplined enough.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Nani, Park Ji-Sung: Park is lightweight but busy and hardworking - I wouldn't expect him to provide much penetration if he plays. Ronaldo is a phenomenon: not just explosive, tricky, elusive and skillful but AMAZINGLY strong on the ball (at over six foot) and fantastic in the air (his goal against Roma was awesome). He's scored more than 40 goals now this season and is presently the best player in the league. Besides his great touch and ability to beat his man Tevez has Hargreaves' selflessness and work rate, and he does the important continuity job for United that Rooney doesn't have the patience for. Nani sparkles in patches.
Florent Malouda, Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips: Malouda looked lightweight and not particularly dangerous at the last World Cup, and he's done nothing to dispel that notion this year. He's a massive downgrade after Arjen Robben, who was on Ronaldo's level when at his best. Joe Cole is terrific - tricky, with great technique, good movement and real bravery in putting his slight frame in positions where he'll be clattered. Cole is capable of winning the game with a moment of solo brilliance. Shaun Wright-Philips is boom-and-bust in human form, and can either dribble the length of the pitch to score or shin the ball wide of an open goal.
Wayne Rooney: Rooney has everything - power, explosive pace, great balance, two good feet, tricks and vision and a wilingness to run the length of the pitch with the ball. His finishing is mediocre, though, and he has games where he's in on the keeper 4 or 5 times and doesn't score. He also goes for the spectacular too often - ridiculous 30 yard chips and shots as the ball drops over his shoulder as he's running at full-speed and so on. If his decision-making improved he would get the goals his talent warrants.
Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka: Drogba is a one-man strikeforce, capable of holding on to possession even with two or three defenders around him. The game between him and Vidic and Ferdiand will be a real physical battle, and he is the best lone striker I have ever seen (Shearer was good too, mind). He sometimes beats teams all on his own, and if Chelsea are behind near the end there's every chance they'll just hit long balls towards him. Pretty much his only fault is that his finishing could be calmer and more reliable. Anelka is also terrific - quick, clever, very smooth and plays with his head up - and I'm surprised that Avram Grant hasn't found a way of playing them both together.