By Piers Barber
It is difficult to recall a time when a Manchester United side have travelled to Stamford Bridge with the same feeling of dread that will accompany them on their trip to London this weekend.
Despite a relatively convincing 2-0 victory over Swansea last weekend, the indifferent state of United’s season remains glaringly obvious: 7th in the league and already out of the FA Cup, they have lost three of four games in 2014 so far and, despite persistent rumours, have yet to secure the signings capable of boosting their squad.
The increasingly vocal feeling of frustration prevalent at Old Trafford contrasts sharply to the sense of quiet yet growing optimism at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho’s second spell in charge of the London club endured a difficult start, with fears about the future of Juan Mata and doubts about the form of the side’s strikers threatening to substantially derail The Special One’s long-anticipated return.
Yet Mourinho’s side have knuckled down into a typically stubborn run of form, grinding out a succession of gritty wins thanks to some watertight defending and brief moments of sublime individual skill. Their home form remains terrifying. Despite a few shaky moments earlier in the season, Mourinho retains the remarkable feat of having gone unbeaten at Stamford Bridge to date, whilst his side has conceded just one goal since they lost to Sunderland in the League Cup at the beginning of December. The threat posed by Chelsea has been heightened yet further by their recent acquisition of Nemanja Matic, who will provide technical skill and an important robustness at the heart of his new side’s midfield.
United, for their part, possess their own impressive form away from home, performing far more effectively without the harsh spotlight of Old Trafford and benefitting from the impressively frenetic and vociferous support of United’s away fans. Yet Moyes’ record against the league’s leading teams remains deeply worrying. He has yet to secure victory over Mourinho in nine attempts, whilst his team remains bottom of the mini-league involving the league’s top seven sides this season, having recorded just one win.
To make matters worse, Moyes looks set to be without his two best players on Sunday. Wayne Rooney’s return date is unknown, whilst the murky issue of Robin van Persie’s injury means a return for the Dutch striker remains little more than a distant hope.
Moreover, Moyes has some important tactical and selection decisions to make. Most importantly, he must decide how to line-up his midfield in opposition to a Chelsea side which is sure to pack the central area. A midfield three of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley may not possess the type of attacking threat capable of keeping the Chelsea defence awake all Saturday night, but such a unit may well provide sufficient solidity to neutralise the threat posed by Chelsea’s numbers in the middle of the park.
Such a line-up would, of course, severely undermine much of the attacking threat United may otherwise offer. To possess any chance of scoring, United would be forced to rely on set pieces or attacking down the flanks, a traditional strength of the Old Trafford club but one that appears to have deserted them in recent months. Meanwhile, whilst fan favourite Danny Welbeck is on an excellent scoring run, he struggles to offer much of an attacking threat without substantial support from midfield.
The alternative would be to sacrifice one of the central midfielders in place of Shinji Kagawa, United’s frustrating enigma who has proved capable of moments of intricate and incisive brilliance during his United career, but has also all too often allowed games to pass him by. At face value, his inclusion would undermine United’s defensive solidarity, although he has made an impressive 1.2 tackles per game this season, just 0.1 less than the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Shawcross. Yet his inclusion would require a brave call from Moyes: an ineffective game for Shinji could mean disaster for United’s defensive effort.
Inevitably, Moyes will attract criticism whichever way he decides to set out his team. Ultimately, Chelsea’s imperious home form may mean any such debate is likely to be in vain. Defeat to Chelsea would mean a fourth defeat in 2014, just half a month into the New Year. It will take a deeply committed, consistently disciplined and – perhaps most importantly – a highly lucky performance for United to escape Stamford Bridge unscathed.
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