In the early days of Premier League (or Premiership rather), Manchester United’s visit to the sandpit that used to be Stamford Bridge in those days would usually be scheduled on Saturday 3 P.M. in front of a smattering of United fans from neighboring Surrey and the pensioners who were regular at the Bridge. However, a Russian billionaire turned this into a classic clash between the red evolution and the blue army – a clash between the two top dogs of English football. The two teams who have won seven out of the last eight league titles are set to take on one another on Sunday and the excitement generated among the fans is palpable.

The resident team at TheHardTackle is not immune to such emotions and it is only fair that we allow the fans in us to come out in force in the buildup to this massive clash.  As part of our Rival Rendezvous series, we put Sanish Fernandez (SF) in the Chelsea corner to trade blows with United fan Arjun Some (AS). Each gets to ask the other a set of five questions, designed specifically to get the blood boiling. So hold on to your hats and enjoy the ride that is sure to get bumpy.

AS: I know people make a lot out of United getting favorable refereeing decisions at Old Trafford and I admit at times it is justified, but can you please clarify what exactly does a Chelsea defender need to do to get sent off in this fixture? Last season it was Gary Cahill with the last man challenge on Danny Welbeck, season before that it was David Luiz with two bookable offenses (& not to mention the dodgy penalty won by Zhirkov).

SF: I never thought I’d live to see the day Manchester United would complain about questionable decisions. But I have. In the interest of fairness, I will however admit that Chelsea have received ‘friendlier’ decisions in this tie over the last couple of years. Prior to that, it was United all the way – with even Fergie calling Obi Mikel’s sending off ‘harsh’.

I’d like to see us win without conceding any grounds for anyone at Old Trafford to question the result. But United are a strong team blessed with fortuitous decisions, and so if karma decides to apply the law of averages and knock them down a wee bit, who are we humble Blues to question it?

In all seriousness though, Chelsea’s young guns up front are likely to be felled like logs by United’s defence. Any action on the part of the referee to hold people accountable for harsh tackles should be uniformly applied.

RvP en route to his hattrick at the Bridge last season

Will we see a repeat of this on Sunday?

AS: Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Chicharito have scored six times between them in their last visit to Stamford Bridge. Given the fact that all three may start on Sunday, how do you rate your team’s chances, if any, to keep a clean sheet?

SF: I think Cech’s made it abundantly clear that there will be goals galore in this game. I don’t see us taking the field hoping to win without conceding. It will take an especially awful day at the office for United, and a particularly blessed one for us, for something of that sort to happen.

Our style of football has now changed with an emphasis of scoring more goals than our opponents do as opposed to our earlier approach of merely conceding lesser.

AS: Last weekend at White Hart Lane, Chelsea conceded 26 shots as compared to the 10 they themselves managed. Even at Emirates earlier this season, Arsenal had more shots than Chelsea. Loading your team with crafty play-makers is all well and good, but surely you cannot bank upon opponent’s profligacy every week. Do you think RDM should adopt a more dour approach on Sunday?

SF: I love how you insinuate that victories over the Spurs and the Gunners came about only because they were wasteful in front of goal. What the stats don’t tell you is more telling, in this case.

With a pressing game reminiscent of the Catalans, Chelsea makes use of its new-found irrepressible enthusiasm in midfield to hold onto possession and regain control. That high tempo approach often means teams have lesser time on the ball than they would’ve liked.

Rather than ponder their next move in the final third and risk losing possession, they tend to take a shot on goal even if they’re not optimally positioned. The shots may go up in number, but the vast majority of those were either from impossible angles or involved less than ideal positions or players. I think di Matteo will stick to his plan.

AS: Tell me honestly, if Chelsea paid £5 million instead of £50 million for Fernando Torres, would he be still starting? He does not have the pace of old, his confidence seems shot and most importantly he has lost the fear factor in the eyes of the opposition defenders. Surely Victor Moses or even Daniel Sturridge are better options than the Spaniard on current form, right?

SF: Rumors of Torres’ obsolescence are heavily exaggerated. He remains Chelsea’s top scorer this season even though his approach in front of goal is oftentimes more selfless than normal. His time in the goalless wilderness last season meant he’s shaped himself into a different kind of striker.

He holds the ball up, readily feeds others and doesn’t go for glory every time he sees the goal from the corner of his eye like Sturridge does. Rather than try and play in the Drogba mold, he’s willing to be just one of many attacking threats. A thousand points of light, if you will.

As far as I’m concerned, he’s already repaid us with the Champions League goal against Barcelona. That’s something to cherish for a lifetime. He owes us nothing.

AS: Even though it’s early in the season and even though Chelsea have got a 4 point lead on United, how important do you think it is for this relatively young Chelsea side not to lose this fixture? Confidence can be a fragile thing, and back to back defeats might have ugly ramifications keeping in mind what happened in the bleak winter months two seasons back.

SF: It’s very important we don’t lose because this is our biggest test this season so far. Even a draw will spur the young Blues on to believe they have a shot at the title. Losing to Manchester United will open the floodgates of doubt and – in the absence of Terry and Lampard – that could wreck the team’s mental make-up.

I think the team needs to play with self belief and go out and enjoy themselves. The four point cushion should hopefully lift some of the burden off their shoulders instead of making them complacent. This is a season defining game even if it is still early days because Chelsea are usually weak during Christmas time while United are strongest then.

So anything other than a loss will be just fine. Not only because of the damage it could do to our psyche but also because a loss here might trigger United’s great leap forward.

Having survived that round of grilling, it is time now for Sanish to hurl a few grenades towards Arjun.

SF: Is Sir Alex Ferguson intent on sullying his legacy with his calls for even more injury time in the game against the Spurs?

AS: Sullying his legacy? Are you kidding me? Have you ever heard the term ‘Fergie time’? The man’s entire legacy is built on it. What sort of a world have we come to live in, where a man – a knight of the realm no less – cannot pass judgment on an issue so intrinsically linked to him. It’s akin to you questioning Albert Einstein for disputing the applicability of Theory of Relativity. It’s heresy, I tell you, sheer heresy.

On a serious note, there are two parts to the claim made by Ferguson regarding injury time. One is that he usually reserves such controversial comments for matches in which his team has performed poorly. I believe it’s his way of ensuring that attention of media is deflected from the harsh criticism that would surely have been on the back pages otherwise. Remember ‘Alan Wiley is too fat’ after a disappointing 2-2 draw against Sunderland at Old Trafford?

Also, if you look at it objectively, choosing to overlook the context and the man who made it, the point does carry some weight. It is far too common a practice for referees to allow a customary 3-4 minutes at end of games unless there are any injury related breaks. No matter the amount of time-wasting, it rarely gets reflected in the time added. Forget the team losing, this affects the spectators too. How would you feel if you paid up for an hour-long massage and the masseur then dithered around for substantial part of it? I guess it’s time, pun not intended, the authorities dealt with this issue seriously.

SF: Where does Chicharito, who’s given Chelsea some difficult moments, fit in the squad now that Rooney and Van Persie get the nod above him?

AS: I like the way you try to present fitting Chicharito in the team as a problem! Let’s just put it this way, these are type of ‘problems’ we wish we had more.

There are two roles that Chicharito may play on Sunday. If Ferguson opts for the diamond in midfield, he goes straight into the starting lineup alongside RvP with Rooney at the apex of the diamond. However, if Sir Alex goes for the more traditional 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1), Chicharito would be held back as an impact sub, to be unleashed on Chelsea in the latter stages. The good thing with a player like Chicharito is that he can be introduced as a sub irrespective of the match situation. If United are chasing the game, there are few strikers better than Chicharito to operate in the box waiting to pounce on any half-chances that might fall his way; if United are leading, then his pace provides an excellent outlet which keeps opposition defenders wary of pushing too high up the pitch.

If you ask me, I would prefer to go with the second option. As good as Chicharito has been against Chelsea, the United player who has caused Chelsea most grief in recent years is Antonio Valencia. I have never seen any other winger in the world, who has given Ashley Cole as many roasting as Valencia has. But if United opt for the diamond, I can’t see Valencia fitting in from the start and that to me would be a real shame and to Ashley, a massive fillip.

SF: Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher compared the new-look Chelsea to Barcelona. Is that an honest compliment or is he hoping to get the Blues to act like their the Catalans just so the Red Devils can swat them aside with physicality?

AS: Barcelona? The one which play their home matches at Nou Camp, you mean to say? Ha ha. Great to see in spite of the ravages caused by ulcerative colitis to his body, our Fletch has managed to retain that Gaelic sense of humor. If only playing three nifty play-makers could make you Barcelona!

The point I guess Fletcher was trying to make is that this Chelsea are a different beast to what they were even last season.  Gone is the battering ram that was Didier Drogba. In his place we have got a host of crafty players looking to pass around the opponent. And Fernando Torres. (By the way, I loved your attempt at putting a positive spin on the Spaniard’s lack of confidence in front of goal by effusing praise on his tendency nowadays to hesitate and look for a pass instead of shooting even when presented with glaring chances.) But Chelsea are very much still a work in progress and has got quite a lot of catching up to do before we can start comparing them to the team which thoroughly outclassed United twice in recent Champions League finals.

I don’t see United over-exerting their physicality in this game (having said that a Scholes special bone-cruncher on Mata or Oscar early on would not go amiss). The key to keeping Chelsea quiet will be to starve their play-makers of spaces in between the defense and the midfield. I know it’s easier said than done and for the tactic to come to fruition exalted levels of discipline will be required on part of the exponents, but if United do manage to restrict Chelsea to less than two goals, I fancy RvP and company to inflict the requisite damage at the other end.

SF: Your defense has been uncharacteristically suspect this season. What would you recommend Fergie do to fix those woes at the back? Or do you agree with Cech that it’s likely to be a goal fest?

AS: It has all the makings of a goal fest, doesn’t it? The two teams who have plundered 40 goals in 16 games between them go head to head; two sets of in-form attackers. So going by sod’s law, we’ll probably end up with a drab 0-0 on Sunday!

As far as fixing woes at the back is concerned, Sir Alex conceded in midweek that he is quite clueless why United have been continuously leaking sloppy goals in almost every match this season. As things stand now, I don’t think there is much else that he can do apart from hoping to get his skipper and the likes of Smalling and Jones back to at least strengthen the numbers at the back. He will probably deploy a midfield diamond and would look to crowd out Mata et al, a ploy that worked against the Newcastle midfield. However if he goes balls out with a 4-4-2 with RvP and Rooney upfront with Valencia and Nani/Young on the wings, we may well end up with a cricket score by the time final whistle is blown at the Bridge.

SF: Ashley Cole and Ferdinand will cross paths in club colors for the first time after Terry-gate. Should Rio shake hands and make up or do you think he needs to make his displeasure known?

AS: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Rio and Ashley are both grown up and mature individuals. If either of them feel about the issue strongly enough to believe not shaking hands with the other would convey the right message, they are more than welcome to go ahead and (not) do it. However for the sake of avoiding the senseless hullabaloo that would surely ensue in the press if the two would choose to do otherwise, I wish that they’ll shake hands and get on with the game.