Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday looking to close the gap at the top of the table to one point, as they face current league leaders and European Champions Chelsea.
Roberto Di Matteo’s men lead United by four points after winning seven out of their first eight games, and the Red Devils, even at this early stage of the season, can’t allow the gap to open too wide.
Despite trailing the West London outfit, the Reds will head into the game full of confidence, having won 10 out of their last 11 games in all competitions, including character building comeback wins against Stoke last Saturday and then Braga on Tuesday in the Champions League.
However there remain concerns over the amount of goals the Red Devils are conceding, especially early in the game. Midweek saw United go behind inside the opening 10 minutes once again, and if Sir Alex Ferguson’s men defend like they have in recent weeks at the Bridge on Sunday, then they will struggle to take anything from match.
Though if last season is anything to go by, the Reds can concede goals and still look to take something from the game. United outplayed Chelsea for large periods of the first hour, but found themselves 3-0 down with a third of the game remaining. However two Wayne Rooney penalties brought United back into contention to set up a thrilling finale. And in true never say die fashion, up popped Javier Hernandez with a clinical header to earn a 3-3 draw, in the process creating yet another thrilling comeback to add to the long list.
As much as last season’s draw proved to be a brilliant result, it did not change the record in that particular part of London; United have not won at Chelsea since 2002. For a side as successful as the Reds it is quite an alarming run of results, and Sir Alex will be hoping that the ten year wait for three points on Chelsea soil will come to an end on Sunday.
Team Selection Thoughts
Last season, Chelsea away proved to be one of David de Gea’s defining moments in his first season as a Manchester United player. The young Spaniard had struggled to settle into life in the Premier League, but as he athletically clawed away a last minute Juan Mata free kick to earn United an incredible point, opinions on him changed. He finished the season strongly and with Anders Lindegaard very doubtful with a thumb injury, De Gea will start at the Bridge once more. If United’s defensive problems continue then de Gea will be pivotal if the Reds are to record a positive result.
In defence, the Red Devils have been boosted by the news that Chris Smalling has returned to training following a metatarsal injury, slightly easing the injury crisis at the back. He will not return to first team action yet though, meaning that Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans will continue alongside each other at centre half. Evans has been prolific, scoring against both Newcastle and Braga, with United’s seemingly newfound ability to score from corners proving invaluable. Rafael, who has been in been in fantastic form this season should continue at right back, and Patrice Evra’s experience and current form will see him named on the left ahead of Alex Buttner.
United have been dealt a blow in midfield with the news that Shinji Kagawa will be out for around 4 weeks after suffering a knee injury. The dynamic Japanese playmaker has settled in quite well at Old Trafford despite being unable to hit top form. Nevertheless he is still an excellent team player and his work rate will be missed. Paul Scholes was rested in midweek and should return to the starting line up at Chelsea, probably alongside Michael Carrick and the ever improving Tom Cleverley. Cleverley was rested last week against Stoke after his exploits for England, meaning he has either scored or assisted in his last two games. He put in a brilliant ball for Hernandez on Tuesday and seemingly goes from strength to strength. His performance will be key in United keeping possession at the Bridge.
Up front the Reds look irresistible. Robin van Persie has six goals from the six games he has started and since returning from injury, Wayne Rooney has scored twice and set up four. The two are beginning to strike up an understanding, and after Hernandez’s brace in the Champions League, Sir Alex has a difficult decision to make on Sunday. However it is a good problem to have, and if the trio are all on the pitch at the same time it is difficult to see United not scoring.
Here, at Stretford End Arising we spoke to members of The Shed End and asked their thoughts on the upcoming game and more:
It’s a match that Chelsea need to win. United have generally finished the season strong, so any points we can put between us early are crucial. Based on the composition of our sides and current form, it’s a match we’d expect to win, especially seeing as the encounter is at Stamford Bridge. We’d expect Di Matteo’s team selection to remain unchanged. The usual back four in front of Cech, with Cahill drafted in to replace Terry whilst he serves his suspension, Ramires and Mikel in the double pivot, Mata, Hazard and Oscar across the front and Torres as the lone striker. The two major weaknesses that we see in United’s team are that your midfielders are poor at tackling and your back four are poor at everything. There’s plenty of quality up front and out wide, but you’re vulnerable to a direct approach through the centre. We have a tendency to crowd the middle of the pitch given that we essentially employ a trio of no. 10’s, but this is an opponent where we think our lack of width will help rather than hinder us.
Roberto Di Matteo
There’s lots of talk about how Roman wants exciting football, but if the football we’re playing right now isn’t exciting, then what is? His accomplishments in such a short period of time are outstanding, he has the trust and respect of the players and he has proven adept at dealing with an often hostile English media. Add to that his status as a Chelsea legend from his playing days and we see no reason at the moment that he shouldn’t be cemented as our long term manager. A lot can change in a year’s time, but we don’t see this side falling apart. As long as we finish in the top 3 and put up a respectable defence of our European title, he should be safe. He’s a tremendous person and he’s proving week by week that he’s quite the manager as well. In particular, we admire his awareness of what is and isn’t working and his ability to adapt, when many other managers would remain stubborn. His substitutions have been excellent and have rescued multiple results already this year. There’s no doubt that he’s under a great deal of pressure, but so is every manager at a top club. The greats manage to thrive under it rather than crumble and early indications are that Robbie is quite cool in a tight spot.
With all due respect to the rest of the team, anybody but Terry wearing the captain’s armband would be a farce. His leadership is not in doubt. His ability as a footballer is not in doubt. Nobody who knows him thinks he’s a racist. He gets on with all of his teammates, is a leader, a mentor, one of the toughest players in the world and never gives less than his all for the club. When it seemed that the whole of England had turned against him and he was unfairly stripped of his captaincy for England, he turned up anyway and was the best defender by an order of magnitude. There’s only one Chelsea captain and everybody associated with the club knows it. As for the punishment, no, I don’t think it was appropriate. There was no evidence. Terry was acquitted in a proper court, which is all that matters. In my opinion the FA had an agenda and it was clear that they would punish Terry to save face and bow to pressure in the media. The outcome of their hearing is unfortunate, but not unexpected. The saddest part, for me at least, is that dog and pony shows like this prevent us from having honest, meaningful discussions of racism and what can be done to combat it. Make no mistake, I don’t deny that racism exists in the Premiership. Racism certainly exists in England and the Premiership is merely a microcosm of English society. Racism is an evil thing and should be combated, but not like this. Serious issues of this sort should not be a platform for people like Jason Roberts to get their fifteen minutes of fame, but John Terry is such an easy target because he’s not well liked that few people dare to stand up and point out how farcical this all is. I’d feel the same way no matter what club I support.
Hazard, Oscar & Mata
Hazard and Oscar have fared as well as can be expected for such young players in their first exposure to English football. Both have had their moments of inconsistency, but overall we are very excited by the quality they bring to the team. At times, Hazard would benefit from simplifying his game and not trying to do too much. He and Juan Mata have developed into a formidable duo and can change positions and terrorise defences with their link up play. Oscar’s biggest strength is his versatility. He’s far and away the most defensively capable of our front three and has the most positional versatility as well. We would not be surprised if he turns out to be the best of the three eventually, but the fact that we have such a talented trio of attackers across the front whose best days are all ahead of them is incredibly exciting.
The marmite man! Most didn’t think he was worth the money at his age and after sustaining the injuries he did at Liverpool. Once Torres joined us, naturally we wanted him to prove us wrong and perform at his best. It hasn’t happened and probably never will. The Fernando Torres of 5 years ago is very likely gone forever. That said, he’s still a useful player and probably underrated by most. He’s scored a goal every other game, which is quite solid by Premier League standards and he’s not a one dimensional centre forward who can’t contribute in other aspects of the game. The issue isn’t really whether he’s good or bad, because I think on the whole he’s been good, but rather whether or not he’s good enough for us. There’s a ton of quality behind him and the feeling of many is that we simply need more up front to reach our full potential as a squad. There’s certainly some truth to that, and I expect that Falcao will be coming in January, but I certainly don’t think Torres has been a liability so far. He’s done more good than bad; it’s just that his bad moments are so infuriating to watch.
Three Key Battles
Robin van Persie vs. Gary Cahill
Van Persie looks every bit a United player and after the news he turned down £300,000 a week to join City, his stock with Reds fans will rise even more. On Sunday, Chelsea will be extremely wary of him and keeping the Dutchman quiet will be their main priority. However his movement and finishing ability mean that he only needs one chance to hurt the opposition. If Cahill doesn’t get tight then van Persie can repeat his goal scoring feat of last season when he bagged a hat trick at the Bridge for Arsenal.
Fernando Torres vs. Rio Ferdinand
Since leaving Liverpool Torres has never really found form at Chelsea but he remains a threat. In Drogba’s absence Torres is the main man and despite his lack of goals he will still hurt United if he gets chances. There is no Vidic for people to claim that Torres will have a field day, but with the likes of Mata and Hazard providing him with the ammunition he should get chances.
Wayne Rooney vs. John Obi Mikel
Rooney has been playing in a deeper position off van Persie and he will take up this role once again on Sunday. Di Matteo will not want his centre halves dragged out of position to mark him, so the job of picking him up will fall to holding midfielder Mikel. If Rooney manages to take up positions in between the defence and midfield he can thread balls through for van Persie and down the wings, giving United attacking impetus. He will be looking to add to his four assists and two goals on Sunday.
It is too early in the season for this game to have an impact on the final destination of the league title, but the result will definitely impinge upon momentum going into the hectic winter schedule. Chelsea are probably marginal favourites bearing in mind their start to the season and United’s record at Stamford Bridge in the last 10 years. However with the likes of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the Red Devils will create chances and if they can sort themselves out defensively, they will have every chance of securing three points. Sir Alex will probably take a point right now, but considering Chelsea are unbeaten and United have already lost twice, it would demoralise their rivals if the Reds moved to within only one point of the league leaders.
Chelsea vs. Manchester United match day thread HERE.
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