The big games are coming thick as we head into the business end of the season, while the title hangs in the balance. Manchester United and Chelsea are undoubtedly the top dogs in English football in recent years, having won all of the last five championships amongst themselves.This season though Arsenal seem to be United’s closest rivals as the current champions Chelsea have waned off dramatically. Chelsea welcome Man United to the Bridge and the visitors will aim to end a nine-year old wait for a victory at this venue. The mind games have begun days before the kick-off and the wait for the titanic clash is getting unbearable. A United win could go a long way in cementing their position at the top of the league whereas a Chelsea win could handle Arsenal the edge in pursuit of the League title.
Here at TheHardTackle, we indulge ourselves in a friendly banter with our resident Man United author Nipun Malhotra. Here are some sizzling questions and even tastier replies. As a gracious host, I’ll let Nipun shoot his questions first. Red Devil, the stage is all yours.
1. Chelsea’s season so far can be divided into a great beginning followed by an alarmingly lean patch, probably due to the absence of key figures. Has the squad’s inability to come to the fore disappointed you or was it something you feared anyways? Also what do you make of the two new winter recruits, signs of panic buying, eh?
KY: I’ve always maintained that Chelsea did the right thing by releasing the experienced players who were on the wrong side of thirty and were drawing astronomical wages. Before the season began, I was quite satisfied with the squad we had at our disposal. However, if the management was not ready to put their faith in young Jeffrey Bruma, the club should have made a shrewd signing to strengthen the central defence. Anyway, the season began in a bombastic fashion, but soon many players were sidelined for one reason or the other. The simultaneous collapse of the spine of the club left the club bereft of character. Yes, I was disappointed with the performance of players who took the field. In the absence of obvious leaders, they forgot to play for the shirt. I can accept if my team fights and loses, but what I just cannot see is a meek surrender.
The two winter signings have ‘long term vision’ written all over them. Drogba and Anelka are 33 and 32 respectively and we would have anyway signed a striker in the summer. The availability of a player of the calibre of Fernando, who was eligible for the Champions League, just fast-forwarded the move. He is 26 now, knows the Premiership, and will serve the club for a good five years. Also, although £50m looks an astronomical figure on the surface, this signing is a shrewd one considering the value of brand Torres. On the other hand, David Luiz is a 23-year old extremely talented defender. These two players will bridge the gap between our promising youngsters and experienced veterans.
2. Looking forward to the game this mid-week, the Chelsea-United rivalry isn’t one of the top most duals historically. There have been few heated exchanges in the past but at best things have always been simmering. What are your abiding memories from this encounter, the 5-0 thrashing you lot gave us at the Bridge probably comes close?
KY: Ah, that day in 1999, how can we ever forget that. Man United arrived at Stamford Bridge unbeaten in over twenty games. Little did they expect what they were getting into. Gus Poyet put the Blues in front after just 27 seconds, and once Nicky Butt was sent off, the writing was on the wall for your club. That was one memorable day, but I would not rate that as the best ever result, because the rivalry only grew intense after a certain Jose Mourinho took the reigns at West London. My favourite match is the 3-0 result at the Bridge in 2006 to clinch the second successive Premiership title. The occasion and the celebrations that followed make that match truly an unforgettable one.
3. One thing which literally amazes me as a Red Devil is the Mourinho fixation of certain section of Chelsea fans. Mourinho has moved on seasons back and is seemingly highly inclined towards the Old Trafford hot seat. Why Maureen over the lovable Carlo?
KY: The Special One, with his tactical nous and charming persona, brought us something for which we had craved for 50 years, and immediately endeared himself to the fans. However, Chelsea FC and Jose Mourinho also became synonymous with arrogance. After his departure and a brief game of musical chairs, we have ourselves a man who is not only a master tactician but also is graceful in his conduct. He has made Chelsea a more likeable team, a team which on its way to claiming a double became arguably the most offensively dominant team in the Premiership era – while maintaining ruthlessness on the pitch, he has ensured that the attitude is not carried off it.
However, to my chagrin, you are right. There are still sections in our fan base, who despite calling themselves club faithfuls, refuse to stand behind Carlo Ancelotti. They don’t realise the importance of stability in football, and the best way forward for Chelsea is to let the Italian operate for at least a decade. Moreover, if letting Mourinho go was a mistake, parting ways with Ancelotti would be a suicide.
4. At Manchester United the only person that calls the shot is Sir Alex and that’s not a secret. However at the Bridge it seems the manager’s authority is constantly challenged by player power and often the owner’s will. As a true Blue what’s your take on it?
KY: Ferguson has deservingly earned that right over a period of 24 years. However, contrary to what your manager maintained, he wasn’t handed over the 80 million pounds that Madrid paid you for Ronaldo, for strengthening the squad. Those decisions still rest with the owners. Moreover, if one was to choose between a Glazer and an Abramovich, it would all boil down to who is a lesser evil. In an unstable club like ours, players such as Terry and Lampard have remained the only constants, as things around them have changed. It was reported in the media, from where I assume you get this question, that the players were responsible for the sacking of Scolari. While this remains a speculations, I wouldn’t blame the players if they raised their concerns, after being dissatisfied with the coaching/fitness methods and seeing disharmony in the dressing room.
Having said that, I would personally love to see Carlo being given the kind of freedom, Sir Alex presently enjoys. I’m still old school in my outlook – I prefer people like Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenenbaum to handle the business aspects of the club, while the manager should handle the football – from his assistants to the players.
5. Now coming back to the game, United have in the recent past looked to field a 5-man midfield in big domestic and European games. We will probably see the same system deployed again this weekend though the personnel may change. Also Chelsea players will be well rested as they had the weekend off – advantage Ancelotti. How do you think the Italian will set his team up for the challenge?
KY: This season the teams which have done well at the Bridge are the ones who have taken the game to Chelsea, rather than who have approached cautiously. My instincts tell me that Ferguson will attack the Blues by fielding your trademark 4-4-2 formation with Rooney and Berbatov upfront.
Chelsea have juggled amongst 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, and 4-4-2 in the games leading up to the big match. In the 0-2 win against Copenhagen, Ancelotti deployed a 4-4-1-1 formation. Each formation has its drawbacks. Chelsea’s three-man midfield lacks creativity and also the flanks are under-utilised – that was the main reason for a change in formation. Manchester United are the masters of the 4-4-2 shape, so it would be interesting to see whether the Chelsea manager is confident enough to take them at their own game. When a 4-4-2 plays against a 4-4-2, as was the case in Denmark, no area on the pitch is mismatched in terms of personnel and eventually it becomes a one-on-one battle all over the pitch. The team which has better players or in form players in most of the positions, generally prevails.
Whatever be the case, we are in for one wild night at Stamford Bridge!
NM: Good luck for the game. Stay tuned as you will probably hear the away section sing – “Ancelotti are you listening? You better keep our trophy glistening cause we will be back in May to take it home walking in a Fergie wonderland!“
KY: Yes, enough of throwing questions at me. The roles would be reversed now – try dodging these bullets, if you can.
1. You had conveniently pulled Jose Mourinho into the discussion, so let me ask you something. Everything in life, howsoever good it may be, has an expiration date – even Alex Ferguson has one. I, for myself, see the Scott hanging up his boots as soon as he lays his hands on the elusive 19th. You mentioned Jose is inclined towards the Old Trafford seat, but do you see the Portuguese as a replacement for the man you worship? If not him, then who else?
NM: So the mention of Mourinho still hurts, eh? Anyway, Sir Alex will become the longest-serving manager in our proud history when he takes the dugout at the Bridge. Now talking about his replacement is a real dilemma and I believe Sir Alex will again play a pivotal role in deciding his own replacement. Mourinho for one has the charisma and undoubtedly the tactical acumen to be a prime contender. However, does he have the ‘United DNA’? Furthermore, is he in it for the long haul or is it going to be another one of his “projects”? I certainly don’t buy the theory of Mourinho’s team playing boring football. Chelsea’s first title winning side and the current Madrid side are pretty darn exciting. I am sitting on the fence as far as other names are concerned. It’s hard to imagine a United without Fergie!
2. As Chelsea pressed on the self-destruct button after initially threatening to run away with the title, United has slowly gathered pace and are now 4 points clear. What according to you has been the most crucial factor responsible for this – has it been the coming of age of Nani or the return of your first choice central defensive partnership?
NM: Nani has been sensational, the doubters have been made to eat humble pie and I hope the Portuguese continues to go from strength to strength. Last year was an exceptionally poor year with respect to injuries, so far this year the fantastic duo of Vidic and Rio have stayed clear of injuries for a bit longer and that has helped enormously. Smalling’s done well whenever he has been asked to fill in Rio’s absence and hopefully he should keep Torres and co quiet this Tuesday. This year’s title race has been bizarre to put it mildly, we haven’t yet gotten out of third gear then again with other competitors floundering we haven’t needed to. Squek bum time, as Sir puts it, is here now and we need to press on the accelerator. The title is sure up for grabs not for the most brilliant but certainly the least inconsistent, hopefully United will be that team.
3. Wayne Rooney went from being hero to villain, overnight, after questioning the team’s ambition and threatening to join bitter rivals City. Fans were heart-broken and the player was rightfully abused. However, what amazed me most was the sudden u-turn taken by the fans after Rooney signed on the dotted line to become the highest paid player in the league. Shouldn’t the fans have waited for him to earn their trust and respect back before embracing him? Further, what role do you see him playing in the match at Stamford Bridge?
NM: Firstly, he never threatened to join City. It was mostly media conjecture. I don’t think every United fan has forgiven him. I certainly haven’t. However, Rooney on his part, apologized to the club and the fans, which was a good gesture. He seems to be working hard to bring his ‘A’ game to help the United cause, trouble is there seems to be too much negativity surrounding Wayne at the moment. Saying that, the goal he scored against Abu Dhabi eleven (city) must give him a lot of confidence, and he got another one at the JJB this weekend. I am hoping we could get to see the best of Wazza in this crucial 10 days for the club. The club has stood behind him through thick and thin and its about time he reciprocated in kind.
Coming to the second part of your question, I am expecting United to operate with the lone man upfront in the form of Rooney or Berbatov as the latter was rested for the Wigan game. If Berba starts upfront, Rooney might be asked to do a job down the left flank, a job he hasn’t exactly flourished in. If Wayne starts upfront, he needs to lead the line well, run the channels intelligently and link up well with the midfield. In short, we need the Rooney of last year back.
4. Fair enough. Tell me one of our players you love and another one you love to hate. In the recent history, I just can’t forget Jonny Evans’ kung fu kick on Didier Drogba’s ribs and Nemanja Vidic standing on the sidelines and laughing his *** off, as Didier lay on the ground writhing in pain – I have hated the Serbian ever since.
NM: Tough one this. Love would be too strong a word I would say. Joe cole was one but he is now plying his trade at the wrong half of Merseyside so he is basically ruled out. It has to be Frank Lampard, who I admire deeply. Lamps has been exceptional for you lot for years now, never really involved in any controversy and carried himself brilliantly on and off the field. His goals scoring ratio from midfield is almost beyond belief, a true great of the game in the making.
I don’t think that kick was deliberate. Johnny isn’t that sort of a player. Anyway, I can name a few Chelsea players who I loathe but picking between Terry and Ashley Cole is too hard a job.
5. Coming to the game, which according to you is the pivotal war on the pitch that has the potential to decide the outcome of the eventual battle. Is it Fletcher v Essien, Torres v Vidic, or Nani v Cole?
NM: From United’s perspective, the threat of Cole bombarding from the left flank is potentially fatal. He needs to be kept in-check. Last year Valencia marked him brilliantly but in his absence, Nani (if he is played on the right) must operate with caution and carry out his defensive duties responsibly. Also, Carrick would need to keep his compatriot Lampard on a tight rope, if United are to prevail in the midfield battle. The Vidic-Torres battle will get a lot of media hype as the Spaniard has usually stepped it up against United while he wore the Merseyside red. There are mouth-watering battles all over the pitch and it really doesn’t get bigger than this. So let the game begin!
KY: Good luck to you for the game. Although you could be right and the away stand may end up singing the song you were talking about, but sadly neither me nor you would be able to hear them sing. The Mathew Harding Stand and The Shed End would not let their voice leave even the away stand, forget reaching us.