It will be a clash between two of the giants of the Premier League in the new age, who have been forced to eat humble pie this season. Manchester United need a win if they want to qualify for the Champions League, and Chelsea need a win to avoid finishing the season in the bottom half of the table.
Chelsea and Manchester United have largely dominated proceedings in the Premier League in the new millennium, winning 11 titles between them. However, this time around the match isn’t a battle for top honours, but a struggle to survive and stay relevant.
The Red Devils are in fifth place, 5 points behind fourth placed Arsenal, and looking behind their shoulders at West Ham United, who are just a point short. As unimpressive as that is, Chelsea would probably love to be in their position at this point. The Blues are now in 13th place, 8 points ahead of the drop zone and a whopping 21 points behind league leaders Leicester City. Hard to believe that they’re the defending champions.
The Failing Dutchmen
Chelsea seem to have found some sort of stability after the sacking of Jose Mourinho and the arrival of Guus Hiddink at the club. But two wins and three draws against the likes of West Brom, Everton and Watford, in their last five matches is hardly the stuff of champions. Although the club are on a 10-match unbeaten run, they have not won a single home game in the league under Hiddink so far this season.
His Dutch counterpart Louis van Gaal has found some sort of respite after the Red Devils’ resounding win over Stoke City in the last round. Otherwise he was under a constant barrage of criticism from pundits, ex-players and fans, which left many wondering whether he would survive at the club. Despite the endless speculation of his imminent departure from the club, Van Gaal will be the man in charge of Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
Both the former Dutch national side coaches have failed to find considerable success at their clubs. With Hiddink being the interim manager for the Blues for the remainder of the season and Van Gaal’s future constantly under scrutiny, they will look to find some measure of success as soon as possible. Although considering the current situation, Van Gaal’s need will definitely be more pressing than that of his opposite number.
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Anthony Martial v/s Kurt Zouma
Two of the brightest young French players in the league will come up against each other at Stamford Bridge. They have had a similar trajectory of success this season, both breaking into the first team and putting in some impressive performances in an otherwise lacklustre campaign for their respective clubs.
Martial’s dribbling ability and darting runs from the left flank will be a huge worry for Zouma, and the latter’s solid presence in defence and hard tackling style will be something the Red Devil will be wary of as well. The two were involved in some lively encounters on the pitch in the reverse fixture as well, with Zouma apologising and showing his love for his compatriot after the match.
Willian v/s Cameron Borthwick-Jackson
Despite being the fourth or fifth choice player for this position in the Red Devil squad, youngster Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has shown enough sparks of talent for Manchester United to make sure fans will have to get used to pronouncing that long last name. He has shown great attacking flair, setting up a goal with a lovely cross in United’s last match.
However, at Stamford Bridge he will have to face up to one of Chelsea’s biggest goal scoring threats this season, Brazilian play maker Willian. The Blues midfielder has proven to be one of the best long range sharpshooters in the Premier League, and will be looking to trouble De Gea from a distance or set up one of his teammates with a precise cross. It will be up to the young left-back to man the flanks and make sure the Brazilian doesn’t make mischief.
Diego Costa v/s Chris Smalling
This will be one of the feistiest encounters on the pitch. Chris Smalling has evolved into an excellent, no nonsense defender for Manchester United this season and is the player who has anchored a sometimes faltering defence. His physicality and presence of mind has often made up for the shortfalls of his makeshift partner Daley Blind. He played a huge part in the impressive defensive record they had at the beginning of the season, which came undone after his brief time out due to injury.
Smalling will come up against one of the most confrontational, headstrong and foulmouthed strikers in Chelsea’s Diego Costa. The forward has hit a rich vein of form since the departure of Mourinho, scoring 6 goals after the special one left, a marked improvement from his tally of two in the rest of the season. The Englishman is a stolid presence at the back and it will be interesting to see what kind of antics the temperamental Spaniard is up to in his attempt to get under his skin.
Though sitting back and parking the bus at Stamford Bridge is no longer the norm, as it was under Mourinho, strong defending will still be an integral part of the Blues’ game plan as they try to take control of the game in midfield and Chelsea have an embarrassment of riches in that department. While the likes of Fabregas, Oscar, Willian and Hazard will be in charge of the attack, their defence will be shouldered by the trio of Zouma, Terry and midfield shield John Obi Mikel. Right-back Branislav Ivanovic also has to pay heed to his defensive duties as he has been caught out a number of times this season.
For Manchester United, Van Gaal’s possession based philosophy has reaped few dividends and it is important to note that their impressive victory last week came in a match where they only had 44% of the possession. Juan Mata has finally been handed the number 10 role and immediately impressed. He will be playmaker in chief and look to utilise the pace of Martial and Lingard on the wings. Fullbacks Darmian and Borthwick-Jackson are adept at making attacking forays and will be a threat on the wings as well.
The weak link for the Red Devils could end up being the central midfield where an ageing Carrick lacks pace and Marouane Fellaini falls short of the criteria that make a good box to box midfielder.