Saturday sees Chelsea encounter the first of two massive hurdles that stand between them and the Premier League title.
Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge will be followed a week later with a trip to Arsenal, and the outcome of these two games could have a huge impact on the title race. Nothing could be mathematically decided even if Chelsea were to win both matches, though they would be practically over the line if they were to do so. Defeats, however, would muddy the waters and give their closest challengers reason to hope.
Chelsea’s meeting with United earlier in the season appeared to highlight the gulf in quality between the two sides even if the match did eventually finish 1-1. A thoroughly dominant Chelsea side was denied victory only by some dodgy officiating from Phil Dowd who somehow failed to see Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry both being wrestled to the ground in the penalty area and then contrived to send off the Serb for two soft yellow cards.
The ensuing equaliser in injury time from Robin van Persie rubbed further salt into the wound but through the disappointment the Blues could see that they were the team set on the correct path.
Fast forward six months and the landscape is slightly different. Chelsea have made good on their early season promise and currently hold a seven-point lead over their nearest challengers, Arsenal, and sit a further point ahead of United with an extra game in hand over both. However, it would also be safe to say that Chelsea have not performed to the level they showed at Old Trafford for a little while now, labouring to victories rather than strolling to them. The Red Devils are also a different beast from the one that was subjugated on their own patch for 94 minutes in October. Back then, Louis van Gaal’s methods had yet to take root, with systems and personnel constantly changing.
Now a successful style and approach has been settled upon — as much by accident as design — and it has brought them rich rewards in recent weeks. Their elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Arsenal has seen them respond with four straight wins in the league, including the notable scalps of Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City. It would appear that there could not be a worse time to play United this season than right now.
But dig beneath the surface a little and perhaps the tide has not turned all that much.
Although Manchester United did win those three marquee games in relative comfort, they also spoke as much about the opposition’s deficiencies as their own strengths. Tottenham were nothing short of abject when they succumbed 3-0, the same scoreline Chelsea beat them by in December.
The 2-1 win at Anfield was impressive particularly because of Van Gaal’s ability to tactically outwit Brendan Rodgers and effectively combat the 3-4-3 system that had seen Liverpool’s results surge over the previous couple of months. But Liverpool’s naivety was also to blame for falling two goals behind and it must be remembered that despite being down to 10 men for all but 38 seconds of the second half, Liverpool rallied admirably and caused United real problems, falling just short of drawing the game.
An idle and confidence-shorn Manchester City capitulated at their city neighbours and were put to the sword by a gleeful United. Yet even in that largely one-sided contest City carved open their opponents on several occasions and should probably have scored more than the two they managed in defeat. United might have improved in almost every area as the season has progressed, though they are still defensively vulnerable.
Whether Chelsea can fully exploit this vulnerability is the key question. Diego Costa remains unavailable for selection due to his troublesome hamstring and Loic Remy is fighting to recover from a calf injury to take his place in the team. The noises are that he should be ready to face United, but if he is absent Jose Mourinho will be left with little choice but to select Didier Drogba.
The Ivorian was exemplary at Old Trafford earlier in the season when he stood in for the injured Costa; giving Chelsea the lead and belying his age with an excellent exhibition of how to play the role of target man. In the intervening period, the years appear to have caught up with him, which is unsurprising given that he is now 37 and playing in the most physically demanding league in the world. Drogba played the full 90 minutes of Chelsea’s last match, the 1-0 win over QPR, and never looked like scoring. Though in fairness nor did anybody else until Robert Green’s error was eventually punished by Cesc Fabregas.
With a tactical battle likely to take place between Mourinho and Van Gaal, Chelsea’s most likely source of goals will be through pace on the counterattack, an avenue that would be cluttered by Drogba’s presence. A healthy Remy would provide a much better fit for that plan.
Reflecting on the majority of all Chelsea’s big matches this season, Mourinho is sure to instigate a degree of caution in his team in order to stifle the opposition while knowing that a draw is not a bad result as it would maintain the distance to United. As well as simply protecting the lead that is already in place, conservative tactics are also likely to be utilised now that the visitors are a rejuvenated attacking force with Wayne Rooney having rediscovered his goal touch and being ably assisted by midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera.
One other name that is showing his class is a certain Juan Mata. Saturday will be the first time he will have returned to Stamford Bridge following his shock £37 million transfer to the Red Devils in January 2014, and he is sure to be afforded a warm welcome from the supporters who twice voted for him to be their player of the year. The Spaniard’s eye-catching performances over the past few weeks have had some Chelsea followers wishing the clock could be turned back, especially given Oscar’s lack of efficacy during the same period.
But as the cliche goes, fondness and friendship will be put to one side as soon as the first whistle blows. Chelsea versus Manchester United is rarely an amicable affair, and with the stakes as high as they are there will be little room for sentiment. It promises to be an intriguing encounter.
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