This is a fixture that always seems to be dreaded by United; and relished by Chelsea. Both teams had contrasting midweek results as they both returned to the Champions League this season, with José Mourinho’s men nearly securing qualification for the knockout stages with a comfortable win at Old Trafford. On the other hand, Antonio Conte’s men were smashed at the Stadium Olympico via a combination of dismal defending and opposition class. An international break looms once again but all that negativity will have to be forgotten for this one, as the two sides meet at Stamford Bridge on Sunday at 16:30.
Yet again, Chelsea have ended up in an extremely volatile state this season (much like their club has been ever since their mega-money takeover now over a decade ago). In spite of the fact some strong performances have arisen from almost under the radar this campaign, some weak ones have appeared too. The Italian boss admitted his side “lacked everything” in their midweek loss, which was fairly accurate to most people who witnessed their largely self-inflicted demolition. It seems strange to think back just a few months and see Chelsea as champions in the Premier League as their showing this time has not been anywhere near that of their displays during their title-winning season; which is now a regular occurrence for each Premier League winner over the last few seasons who attempting to follow up their success the year prior.
With the aforementioned European competition – another hindrance of Premier League sides as of late – giving the Blues a lot more to deal with, it’s not been much plain-sailing thus far. The saga of Diego Costa took its toll on the club and the fact they seemed to ‘overspend’ at the time for Álvaro Morata due to United swooping for former man Romelu Lukaku (if you believe the press that is) was unsettling. Along with that, the sound additions of centre-back Antonio Rüdiger, wing-back Davide Zappacosta, box-to-box midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, holding midfielder Danny Drinkwater, and even the return of the defensive star Andreas Christensen – who’d built himself a reputation whilst out on loan – was still not enough to truly make a statement in the summer as Chelsea’s hopes of retaining the title looked to be lost.
Still persisting in the effective 3-4-3 system, most of the expected lineup is the same that brought them that glory a few months ago. However, the loss of N’Golo Kanté in midfield has been a huge blow as Cesc Fábregas has yet to show the versatility to help fill his integral role in the side. The infamous departure of John Terry in the summer really did show a changing of the guard but the most intriguing man leaving the club was Nemanja Matić. Hailed as the ‘signing of the summer’ by many, Chelsea let the now three-time title winner go to United. He’s shown his quality since and his previous side, who Mourinho brought him to, have missed his attributes in the middle of the park. For this match, Conte will also have to deal with the injury of a man he really entrusted last season in the wing-back role and finally got his career going properly, Victor Moses, who is out with a hamstring injury. Joining him in missing out as a result of injury is the out of favour wing-back Baba Rahman. Smashing United 4-0 in this fixture the last time it was played in the peak of their now stylish 3-4-3 formation, and also narrowly winning 1-0 in an FA Cup encounter, the advantage is with Chelsea in terms of history. Nevertheless, Mourinho outclassed Conte tactically in the sides’ last meeting, winning 2-0 with a difference of approach that was used in the cup match to great success to claim victory.
There’s no doubt United have lost momentum ever since the last international break came around, and one is almost here now. The free-flowing football seems to have halted and the lacklustre and more cautious mindset has come into the team; likely through nerves after some tricky away matches. Even if United have only lost once this term, doubts about the team are rife throughout the fan base and footballing world. Speculation surrounding both managers and their respective futures will add fuel to the fire too. In the stadium in which he made (by most accounts) his first world class save for United, David De Gea has shown in recent weeks that his teammates still massively rely on the Spanish stopper. With an incredible twenty-two clean sheets – the most out of all the clubs in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues – in just over a year, his position on the pitch is assured but for the men in front of him, it may not be the same story.
Like the change of tactics previously mentioned for the Reds, it could be a 3-4-3 to match their opponents. Players such as Eric Bailly (shortlisted for 2017 African player of the year this week), Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling and likely to be vying for a place but Daley Blind will be in contention to help play out from the back. Rested in midweek, Antonio Valencia looks set to come back into the team along with either Ashley Young or Matteo Darmian. Whoever plays if the wing-backs are opted for, they will be key to the match. It’s safe to Matić will be partnering Ander Herrera, another foe of Chelsea (in particular Eden Hazard) after his successful man-marking and controversial sending off last campaign.
The shining showing of Scott McTominay in midweek also gave him a good account for possible involvement. The real dilemma that the Portuguese boss has is up front. Form is a factor that has to come into play and with Anthony Martial playing well and both Henrik Mkhitaryan & Lukaku struggling, there could be unexpected firepower from United. On the counter, Jesse Lingard & Marcus Rashford could be well utilised with their pace and work rate. The two young guns will be well rested and the shaky side of the blues’ defence has been shown as of late. That’s all likely depending on what part in the match Lukaku is playing as his performance will surely significantly effect the outcome of the match. Criticism has come for the former Chelsea man who has scored goals for fun this campaign at times, but it’s interesting to see that United have the most goals via the involvement of substitutes (whether it be goals or assists) in the league thus far – showcasing the impact of the options available in the squad. There’s now a return to training for Michael Carrick & Marcos Rojo who look closer to full fitness each passing winter day. Although, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba, and Zlatan Ibrahimović all frustratingly remain out. With just the one win in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge from their last fifteen, the Reds don’t stand in good stead historically. Although, Conte’s men have already lost the same amount of games this season as they did the last. That will help Mourinho in terms of chances but confidence will likely be overridden by that caution come the match. Refereeing the match will be Anthony Taylor.
Momentum needs to get going again for United and if they can conquer their old adversaries it may well return, whereas Chelsea must get back to winning ways to start some form. That means whoever comes out of the match in better shape than they started, it will have huge implications on the season. With it being the last time until 2018 that an international break has to be anticipated following a set of fixtures. Conte & Mourinho will be fighting for their lives amidst that almost extraordinary – yet sadly expected – talk that both of their jobs may not be safe, so it should be a good one.