CHELSEA

V

MANCHESTER UNITED

Stamford Bridge, London

Sunday, October 28, 16:00 GMT

***

The stage is set as Stamford Bridge awaits possibly the biggest game of the season thus far. Manchester United are in town to face a rampant Chelsea side sitting comfortably at top of the table. Last season’s corresponding fixture served up quite a treat of football and one of the most spectacular games in recent Premier league history. Chelsea have dominated United on their own patch for a decade now, and their current league form could ensure the trend continues. Roberto di Matteo and Sir Alex know the importance of the fixture, with Mancini’s City looking far from convincing, the league title could perhaps be fought between these two stalwarts of English football.

Chelsea are unbeaten in the league so far and what’s more, the Blues have looked irrepressible in each and every league outing. Di Matteo has added style and panache to the workman like Stamford Bridge outfit and their Russian owner is finally getting to see the sexy football, he so yearned for. Furthermore, the high profile signings for once have lived up to their billing. Eden Hazard has been a revelation and an unadulterated genius at times, while Oscar has shown promise that defies his age.  Juan Mata has regained his mojo and the trio can wreck untold havoc on the meanest of defenses on their day. However the midweek reversal in Europe could set the Blues back as their Champions League crown seems to be slipping away prematurely.

Manchester United, on the other hand, have gotten into the habit of starting games casually and with little to no impetus. Consequently, the Red Devils have had to rely on their famous revival skills to claw their way back from situations which at times seem irrecoverable. Midweek Champions league game was yet another illustration of Ferguson’s side’s habit of making things hard for themselves. On a more positive note, United’s strike force looks ominous and intimidating and perhaps one of the strongest in Europe at the moment. Ferguson has at his disposal a wide array of striking talent with Chicharito’s predatory instincts coupled with Danny Welbeck’s link up play adding to the all round footballing talents of modern football’s two most lethal front men – Wayne Rooney and Robin vvan Persie.

United can’t afford a slip up and let Chelsea get a seven point head start even this early on in the season; their leaky defense must stand firm if they harbor aspirations of breaking their Stamford Bridge hoodoo. The Blues on the other hand will be craving to put daylight between the two teams. All in all, Fergie’s men need to get something out of the game, much more than their hosts.

Team News & Tactical Brief

Chelsea

Roberto di Matteo has ruled Frank Lampard from the clash against United, with the midfielder reaggravating the calf injury he’d picked up during the international break. However, new signing Marko Marin, who’s spent most of his time on the medical table since his move to England, is available for selection. Rest of the squad is free from injury and ready to be called upon by the manager.

Ever since Chelsea started fielding the fascinating trio of Mata, Hazard and Oscar together, they have looked immensely dangerous; however, defensively, they aren’t as resolute as before. Nonetheless, at home to United, di Matteo is expected to retain his first choice selections, and hope the defence fairs better. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Terry serving his ban, Luiz and Cahill will feature ahead of Cech in the centre of defence, while Cole and Ivanovic are expected to retain their place on the flank. Ahead of them, the double-pivot of Mikel and Ramires will be the obvious, rather the only choice in the absence of Frank Lampard. Fernando Torres is also a sure-shot selection ahead of the third band.

The option of playing Ramires on the right wing isn’t available anymore as the Brazilian is set to start in the central midfield, but di Matteo may field Ryan Bertrand on the left flank ahead of Cole, if he feels that United will go for width in this clash; although the presence of Bertrand will rob the attack off some of its potency, it will more or less secure the left wing. In any other scenario, Hazard will start on the left, Mata on the right, with Oscar playing though the middle and entrusted with a dual responsibility of combining with the other offensive players and restricting the impact United’s deep midfielders have on the game.

The key to this fixture lies in the defences of both sides, particularly through the middle. For Chelsea, a lot depends on how Luiz and Cahill cope with the presence of Rooney and van Persie, with Welbeck also looking to drag the defenders out of position. For Chelsea to do well on Sunday, the defenders have to be disciplined hold their fort. Furthermore, a lot will also depend on what sort of game Mikel has this weekend. If he’s his usual calm and assured self, Chelsea will be insured against the threat posed by Tom Cleverley from an advanced midfield position and  by one of the forwards dropping deep; however, if he loses his concentration, even for a moment, it can cost Chelsea dearly.

Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Oscar, Hazard, Mata; Torres

Manchester United

Sir Alex heads into the game with a few injury worries, but despite that, he will be much happier considering the length of injury list he had only a few weeks ago. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are nearing full fitness and will be ready for action in the next couple of weeks. Ashley Young was an unused substitute in midweek’s Champions League game and with a few more days of training under his belt, he will be a good option from the bench if the manger chooses to name him in the squad. Darren Fletcher has also played three full games for the Red Devils and is looking to be edging towards his best. However, the midweek game brought one bad news for the manager. Shinji Kagawa, who twisted his knee during the game, is ruled out for almost a month due to what is believed to be a similar kind of injury suffered by Young in September. Other than that, only Nemanja Vidic is still a long way from recovery.

The manager will welcome back Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra to the starting line-up having given them a well earned rest for the game against Braga. Ferdinand’s absence was felt by the team as well as Carrick looked out of his depth in defence. Also, Carrick’s midfield guile was missed by the team during the first half as Rooney had to drop very deep to help out the defence and also to build up the play. Nonetheless, Rio will return alongside Jonny Evans while Rafael will be hoping to continue his good form in the right-back position. Fergie will be hoping for a much better start from his defenders than they have managed during the season thus far where they have conceded first in eight of their eleven matches. Although the strike force have rescued them on most occasions, Sir Alex knows that Chelsea is not a team to be given too many liberties, especially on their own turf.

It will be interesting to see the formation deployed by the wily old Scot during the game. While United looked to have settled in the diamond formation during the international break, the last two games have been a completely different story altogether as they have scored five of their last seven goals from crosses with the other two coming from corners. Also, the fact that the manager had to change his team’s setup against Braga by resorting to a 4-4-2 having started with a diamond formation makes it anyone’s guess as to what strategy will be adopted at the Bridge. However, given the Blues’ setup and their midfield trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar in full-flow, United’s manager might opt to pack the midfield through a diamond formation or even by putting five across the midfield with RvP alone on top.

However, irrespective of the formation, Carrick, Rooney and van Persie are certain to start the game. Paul Scholes, who has started just one game in almost a month, is also a good candidate to start as the manager has shown a tendency to rest his senior stars ahead of a tough schedule. Also, one must not forget that it was his introduction last season that helped the visitors turn the game around to salvage a point after trailing by 3-0. With Kagawa out, one of Cleverley or Anderson will get a nod to play alongside Scholes and Carrick while there will also be  a toss up between Welbeck and Hernandez.

While the trio of Welbeck, Rooney and RvP looked unstoppable against Stoke, the performance of Hernandez in midweek has given the manager a happy problem to deal with. The Mexican lead the line very well against Braga, but with him in the side, United are not able to interchange the positions of the strikers that has worked so well for them in the season so far. Also, Welbeck’s technical ability and hold-up play to go along with his hard-work up-front makes him a slight favourite over Chicharito. However, if the manager opts to go for width, he could salvage Welbeck for Valencia or Nani and Rooney could be shifted to the left hand side while Carrick, Scholes and Anderson/Cleverley will form the midfield axis.

Probable Starting Line up (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Scholes, Cleverley; Welbeck, Rooney, van Persie

Key Facts

  • Chelsea have not lost to Manchester United in the league at Stamford Bridge for over a decade.
  • The Blues are the only team in the league with a cent percent home record.
  • United have scored the most goals in the league so far while the Londoners have conceded the least (along with Arsenal).
  • RvP has scored five goals in his last two visits to the Bridge while Rooney has five goals in the last six matches in all competitions between these teams.
  • Juan Mata has scored three and assisted five goals in his last four league appearances.

Players To Watch Out For

Juan Mata (Chelsea)

With all the initial plaudits taken by Eden Hazard, Juan Mata has suddenly rediscovered his devastating form that propelled the Blues during most part of last season. If anything, the Spaniard looks fitter and sharper than ever and with the wealth of talent playing alongside him, he looks to be enjoying his football to the fullest. His performance against Spurs was out of the top drawer and in the end, it was the former Valencia man that proved to be the difference between the two sides. He makes the Blues tick from central midfield and if United need to get anything out of the game, they have to stop Mata, Hazard and Oscar which is not even easier said and almost impossible to be done. Hence, the Red Devils must stop the supply chain which revolves around Juan Mata.

Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

Like Mata, Rooney is also playing his best football in a while. His early season injury certainly looks to be a blessing in disguise now as the Englishman has returned much fitter than he was at the start of the season. He has rediscovered his touch that deserted him during the Euros and also in the first two games of the season and he is acting as the lynch-pin for Sir Alex’s team. Rooney has played in midfield, on the tip of the diamond, as a striker and even as a left winger in the second half against Braga and has excelled in all those positions. In short, Wayne has been the go to man for the team and also the player who has made the manager flexible with his formations. Fergie will be looking for another supreme performance from his star man on the big day while di Matteo will be thinking of more than one way to stop him.

Prediction

Chelsea 3-2 Manchester United

Needless to say, it is expected to be an amazing encounter with the wealth of attacking talent present in both teams. Also, the shaky defences of both sides makes it an even more exciting game for the neutrals. The Blues, with the home crowd behind them, will dominate large chunk of possession and constantly ask questions of their opponents. Manchester United, on the other hand, will be looking to play on the break and will also hurt their hosts on a few occasions. Nonetheless, Chelsea will make the home advantage count and put daylight between them and United in the title race.

Blast From The Past