This, really, is it. If Chelsea pass unscathed through Saturday’s game against Manchester United, the title race is run and Jose Mourinho will have his third Premier League title.
Chelsea, though, will be without Diego Costa because of his hamstring injury and, with Loic Remy a major doubt with a calf strain, that means Didier Drogba starting up front and not a lot of cover.
United, meanwhile, have major problems with Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo all out injured. With Jonny Evans suspended that leaves a shortfall both at centre-back and in central midfield
Luke Shaw is also a doubt with a hamstring problem. Robin van Persie is back in training but wasn’t judged fit enough to take his place on the bench against Manchester City.
United have won six in a row and Louis van Gaal hailed the second-half performance against City as “Fantastic”, agreeing with suggestions it was the best United have played under him.
They’ve found a balance and a sense of controlled aggression that was missing earlier in the season, the grumbles with the manager have melted away and 2015-16 suddenly looks very exciting for United. Chelsea have looked jaded of late, the remorselessness of the late autumn gone, and yet for all they keep needing late goals to win games, they have won their last three games and have dropped only six points since the 5-3 defeat by Tottenham on New Year’s Day.
The sides drew 1-1 at Old Trafford in October last year, a game Chelsea were winning 1-0 before Van Persie turned in a free-kick deep in injury-time.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CARRICK
When Michael Carrick has played an hour or more of a game this season, Manchester United have picked up an average 2.44 points. When he has not, they have averaged 1.63 points per game.
The sense of authority and control he gives is vital, whether he is playing as one of three central defenders or as the deep-lying midfielder. His pass selection and range of passing mans United have a variety to their play, and his reading of the game means opponents are rarely able to isolate United’s centre-backs.
With both him and Blind out, it’s not clear who can come in at the back of midfield: Marouane Fellaini, perhas, will drop back, while Wayne Rooney played in the role earlier in the season and in the final minutes against City.
THE MIDFIELD MATCH-UP
Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas are almost certain to play for Chelsea, but the third member of their central triangle is less clear. With Oscar so out of sorts, the likelihood is that Ramires will be used alongside Nemanja Matic, with Fabregas taking up Oscar’s position behind Drogba.
The only problem with that is that Ramies tends to prefer the right side, but Mourinho will surely want Matic on that side to try to negate the impact of Marouane Fellaini whose surges from the left of centre have punched holes in numerous rear-guards (if, that is, Fellaini plays in that advanced role). Ramires, perhaps on the wrong side, would then have a battle of the scuttlers against Ander Herrera, with Fabregas not merely looking to find chances against whoever occupies the deep midfield role for United.
The one weakness Chelsea have shown defensively this season is when players get a run on the centre of their defence at pace, something both Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling have done to good effect.
Yet the one thing this United lacks is pace (in terms of raw speed over the ground; even if Herrera, in particular, is extremely quick in terms of receiving and laying off the ball. Fitness issues aside, it would be a surprise were Van Gaal to change a winning side, but it may be that this is a game in which Angel Di Maria has a role to play from the bench.
Van Gaal used him behind Van Persie and Adnan Januzaj against Chelsea at Old Trafford, but he may be of more use as part of the front line – a role he occupied in the away game at Arsenal.
Chelsea have dropped only six points at home all season and Mourinho has only ever lost one Premier League game, so going the whole way and backing a United win at 3.80 is probably a step too far.
United, though, are playing exceptionally well at the moment and, even against an injury-hit side, you wonder how long, however strong they are mentally, Chelsea can keep on forcing results when playing poorly. The intensity of United’s pressing could play on their apparent weariness.
So, even though Chelsea are evens to win a home game, the wisest course is probably to back United +0.5 on the Asian line at around 1.84.
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