Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be suspended for Monday’s game which immediately gives Jose Mourinho a question to answer. Wayne Rooney could return, Anthony Martial could move into the middle or perhaps this is a chance for Marcus Rashford to stake a case to be the Swede’s long-term replacement. Mourinho also has more strategic concerns with the second leg of a Europa League tie against Rostov on Thursday. “We have to make changes for sure because we play Monday and Rostov play Sunday, but we can’t go to Stamford Bridge with a Nicky Butt team,” Mourinho said on Thursday – Butt now being the head of United’s academy. That suggests he regards the Europa League as more important than the FA Cup, which may simply be a matter of pragmatism, that with Chelsea to play and Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal still in the FA Cup, the European competition may be easier to win (plus, of course, it offers a route into the Champions League that may not be available to United through the league). Those considerations aside, both teams are otherwise at full-strength.
Chelsea march on relentlessly, having won 18 and lost just one of their last 21 games. They’re 10 points clear at the top of the league and realistically will be crowned champions sometime around the end of April or beginning of May. With no European football to distract them, they should be fully rested and fully prepared. United have lost just one of their last 28 games, but the big difference to Chelsea is how often they draw – eight times in that run. That reflects a lack of fluency about them, a lack of the sort of edge that means Chelsea always offer a threat even when they are apparently under pressure.
Jose Mourinho’s only previous return to Stamford Bridge with United was a humbling one. Defensive chaos let in Pedro to open the scoring in the first minute and United went on to lose 4-0, with Mourinho deflecting massively at the end by accusing Antonio Conte of being disrespectful as he whipped up the crowd. United haven’t won any of their last 11 games against Chelsea, their last victory coming with a 3-2 win in October 2012 after Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres had been sent off.
United have at times seemed reliant on Ibrahimovic this season: he has scored 26 goals in all competitions, 17 more than the next highest-scorer, Juan Mata. His absence creates problems not just for his goal-scoring, though, but also for his aerial ability. There simply isn’t a like-for-like replacement in the United side.
Ibrahimovic has won 3.1 aerials per game in the Premier League this season; the next best candidate for the role is Anthony Martial with 0.5. That probably means a change of approach that may fit with Mourinho’s inclinations anyway. After the embarrassment of the 4-0, he will presumably look to keep things tight, sit deep, take no risks and play on the counter, in which case the pace of some or all of Martial, Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard could be very useful.
Mourinho’s decision to deploy a back three away to Rostov on Thursday was a surprise. Perhaps it was a specific response to the absence of Eric Bailly and the difficulties of the conditions plus Rostov’s aerial threat, but it might also give an insight into how he will play against Chelsea. The only side to beat Conte’s team in the league since his switch to a back three was Tottenham, who matched them shape for shape. United probably couldn’t match Chelsea physically as Spurs did, but a back three may be the best way to deal with the floating threat of Eden Hazard and Pedro. That would almost certainly then mean a front two, probably of Mkhitrayan and Martian with Paul Pogba driving forward in support. Or it may be that Mourinho sticks with his back four and a midfield three of Michel Carrick, Ander Herrera and Pogba.
MATIC OR FABREGAS?
So settled is Conte’s side that the only real question is whether Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas operates alongside N’Golo Kante in midfield. Fabregas’s superior passing ability may be useful if United do sit deep and look to frustrate Chelsea, but Matic may be more useful if United look to make it a physical contest.
Given Chelsea’s form and their freshness, the 1.85 available on them to win looks a touch long. United have developed a useful habit of dragging themselves through games but with Ibrahimovic it may be tough here. Backing narrow home win scorelines is probably the way to go:1-0 is 6.30, 2-0 is 8.50 and 2-1 is 9.00.