There is perhaps no job more dangerous in football than being Manchester United’s left-back. Luke Shaw is still recovering from a broken leg, Marcos Rojo has a dislocated shoulder and Ashley Young has a groin problem – although Matteo Darmian made his return from a rib injury against Stoke City on Tuesday. With Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones both out, Darmian is likely to operate at right-back with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson on the left. Bastian Schweinsteiger is still out with a knee problem, which probably means Michael Carrick continuing in midfield – if his body is able to handle two games in five days.
Chelsea still have a shortfall at centre-forward, where Loic Remy has a calf injury, Radamel Falcao has a muscular problem and Alexandre Pato is lacking match fitness, but otherwise their squad is in good health.
Chelsea are unbeaten in 10 games since Jose Mourinho’s departure and, while the fact that five of Guus Hiddink’s seven league games in charge have been draws is probably a frustration, there is a sense of calm returning. With relegation an increasingly distant prospect, there is a sense that the league is no longer a priority and this season now is about runs in the FA Cup and the Champions League. United continue to stutter and grumble but an away win in the Cup at Derby and a home victory over Stoke suggest that there may be a semblance of form returning.
The meeting of the sides at Old Trafford on December 28 was, after United had hit the woodwork twice in the opening 16 minutes, an uneventful goalless draw, a match of almost complete stalemate as United ended a run of three straight defeats and Chelsea continued the process of shaking Mourinho out of their system. Sunday, surely, can’t be so tame.
MIKEL AND ROONEY
In Chelsea’s last six league games, Hiddink has selected Mikel John Obi, sometimes to play alongside Nemanja Matic, sometimes Cesc Fabregas. Perhaps its an issue of familiarity, that Hiddink remembers him from his first stint in charge of Chelsea and wants to use him to instil a similar ethos to that which existed then, but either way, his presence has helped shore up what had been a clear weakness.
Although Chelsea let in five goals in those six games, they also kept four clean sheets. The first of those six matches was the game against United at Old Trafford, when there was something almost poignant about seeing Wayne Rooney and Mikel going head to head, like two ancient boxers lumbering through an embarrassing reprise of a title bout they’d had a decade earlier. Both, though, have improved since then, Rooney scoring seven goals in the seven games since.
CHELSEA’S AERIAL THREAT
If Louis van Gaal is to be believed, the reason Manchester United lost to Southampton two weekends ago was that the injury to Darmian left them without sufficient height to cope at set-pieces. It’s not an entirely convincing argument, but it is true that this is not an especially physically imposing United side, particularly when Marouane Fellaini doesn’t play.
Given the height and power of John Terry, Kurt Zouma, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa, set plays look likely to be a significant threat for Chelsea. Terry is 9.00 and Matic and Ivanovic 10.00 to score at any time.
Ivanovic has recovered from his awful start to the season, partly because he now has a stable unit around him, with Zouma’s pace to cover behind and Mikel alongside. Nonetheless, his lack of speed and, in particular, his cumbersomeness on the turn, mean that Anthony Martial should be able to thrive. And if Zouma or Mikel does end up acting as cover repeatedly, then that may create openings for others.
The biggest decision Van Gaal has, arguably, is whether to field the two-times former Chelsea player of the year Juan Mata at the front of midfield, or to turn to the more dynamic Ander Herrera.
It’s no great surprise that Under 2.5 goals is as short as 1.61, a price so short it’s almost tempting to back overs just because 2.38 is so long (and, after all, Chelsea’s last three home league games have finished 2-2, 2-2 and 3-3). In fact it’s an odd market for precisely that reason.
Chelsea, improving week-by-week under Guus Hiddink, feel like favourites against an inconsistent United, but should United really be as long as 3.90? Then again, there’s a danger of being seduced by two wins against faltering sides, one of them from the Championship.
Chelsea’s upturn looks the deeper rooted, so backing them to win at 2.07 is probably the way to go.