One of the keys to Chelsea’s success this season has been how they’ve been able to keep their squad fit, and their good health continues with no absentees. United, by contrast, are ravaged by withdrawals.
Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young and Juan Mata are all definitely out, while there is a major doubt over David De Gea. Then there’s the strange case of Wayne Rooney, who was apparently frustrated to be omitted from the squad to face Anderlecht on Thursday because of his ankle problem.
Chelsea perhaps are not quite the unstoppable force they were in November and December, but these are relative states. They’re still seven points clear at the top of the table and have reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. Since losing to Tottenham in January they’ve won 12 of their last 15 games. United are on a 21-game unbeaten run in the league, but 10 of those have been drawn; of the previous 15 sides to have gone on a 20-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, nine have picked up fewer points per game. Before beating Sunderland last weekend, they’d drawn against West Brom and taken a point against Everton, only thanks to a last-minute Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty. An away draw against Anderlecht on Thursday was frustrating given their domination but leaves them favourite to progress t the Europa League semi-final.
The sides have met twice already this season. A defensive shambles gifted Chelsea the lead in the first minute of the league game at Stamford Bridge and they went on to win 4-0, with Jose Mourinho so appalled he was left manufacturing controversy with Antonio Conte at the final whistle to try to deflect from just how outclassed his team had been. They then met in the FA Cup quarter-final in March. United, having effectively set up with a back six, seemed to target Eden Hazard, kicking him whenever he came near the ball, leading to a red card before half-time for Ander Herrera. Chelsea went on to win 1-0, but the victory was more comfortable than that may suggest. United haven’t beaten Chelsea since 2012, a run of 11 games in all competitions.
At Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup, Mourinho effectively played a back six with Jones at right-back, Matteo Darmian at left-back and Antonio Valencia and Young as wide midfielders who shuttled back. It seems improbable he will try anything similar at Old Trafford, not just because a home crowd might not accept such uber-pragmatism but because without Jones and Young, his options are limited. There remains the issue of how to stop Eden Hazard. The foul that led to Ander Herrera’s red card in that game last month was the fifth United had committed on the Belgian and the officials will be alert to any similar ploy this time.
United remain remarkably reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic for creativity: he has scored 28 goals this season and often seems United’s only attacking idea. Playing against a back three, there is a serious danger he is left isolated, particularly with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic stopping the supply to him. From United’s point of view, there is a serious need to get supporting players close to Ibrahimovic, not only from the wide positions – probably Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard, but also through the middle in the form of Paul Pogba.
A ROLE FOR FELLAINI?
United are a much better team when Michael Carrick plays – this season with him in the team United have won 67% of games and lost 4%; without him they’ve won 56% and lost 22%. The reason he was omitted against Sunderland last week was presumably to keep him fresh so he could play both against Anderlecht on Thursday and in this game, but it may be that Marouane Fellaini could have a role to play. Chelsea have not demonstrated many weaknesses this season, but they have occasionally looked vulnerable to balls from the right played towards the back post for a player surging from deep. Fellaini was effective as a deep-lying target-man for Louis van Gaal and if United need to break the pattern of the game, he could be an option from the bench.
Dogged as United have become of late, there’s been little in their play to suggest they will suddenly be able to upset a Chelsea team that has twice beaten them convincingly this season. Chelsea to win outright looks good value, but it may be worth backing them with a small handicap at closer to evens, in case United’s fight enables them to force a draw.