Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United
Preview: Chelsea vs. Manchester United
Jose Mourinho makes his latest return to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon for a huge Premier League showdown, as second-placed Manchester United attempt to extend their points advantage over Chelsea.
The Blues have stuttered in the opening months of the campaign, struggling to find any real momentum after winning just three of their last seven games in all competitions.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte needs no reminding that the life of a Premier League-winning manager can be short, given the man he would eventually succeed in West London – his opposite number this weekend – was axed just seven months after finishing first in 2015.
Talk of the man at the top moving on is nothing new in these parts, of course, with Conte bringing much of that on himself by repeatedly admitting over the past 12 months or so that he does not see his long-term future in English football.
Since the 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Roma, which could have ended a lot worse had the rampant Italians taken a couple more of their chances, there have been claims that it is now simply a case of whether Conte will be pushed or instead jump before the inevitable.
Yet a look at the situation Chelsea find themselves in, with a quarter of the season now played, suggests that all is not that bad; three points this weekend being enough to put them in a favourable position both at home and abroad.
The current nine-point gap on Manchester City is of course a worry, but Chelsea will move to within a point of second place this weekend, while also being almost certain of a place in the last 16 of the Champions League in spite of that midweek setback in Rome.
Throw a favourable EFL Cup quarter-final tie into the mix and Conte, who also endured a shaky start in his maiden campaign on these shores, has every right to wonder just what all the fuss is about.
A 13-match winning run kick-started Chelsea’s campaign last term and eventually took them all the way to the title, though the best they have managed so far in 2017-18 is a three-match run that was ended prematurely by Arsenal six weeks ago.
Conte has pointed to the fact that he is without a number of first-team players but, ahead of this pivotal match in the campaign, the Italian cannot be absolved of all blame as he has used an incredible nine different defensive systems in 17 games this term.
More stability, even if it means pushing his players to the max, is required for the champions to find some much-needed momentum, knowing that this season can still go one of two ways even if they have been completely written off by many already.
Recent form in Premier League: DWLLWW
Recent form (all competitions): LDWWW
While Mourinho’s position as Man United boss is unquestionably safe for the foreseeable future, the Portuguese is seemingly trying his best to drive a divide between himself and the club’s passionate supporters.
Another sly dig at the Old Trafford faithful ahead of the 2-0 Champions League win over Benfica on Tuesday night did little to heal the increasingly fractious relationship, forcing the Manchester United Supporters Trust to step in and arrange a meeting.
All is not well behind the scenes at United, then, but results on the field have been positive on the whole, even if questions were again raised regarding Mourinho’s perceived bland style of play in the wake of recent performances.
The midweek victory over his former club Benfica hardly set the pulses racing, coming on the back of a carved-out win against Tottenham Hotspur, defeat at the hands of Huddersfield Town and a turgid affair with Liverpool, plus a no-nonsense EFL Cup triumph away at Swansea City.
Mourinho will rightly point out that his side took four points from their two big matches in October against Liverpool and Spurs, keeping them well on course for a first post-Sir Alex Ferguson title, but a number of the club’s former players – most recently Paul Scholes – have urged the experienced boss to take a less conservative approach.
That will unlikely happen this weekend, however, as United face another big challenge at the home of the champions, where a heavy loss in this corresponding fixture last term highlighted a number of issues Mourinho had to deal with if he was to end the club’s long wait for title success.
For all his critics, the 54-year-old has indeed instilled a winning mentality at Old Trafford once again – they have lost just three of their last 38 Premier League matches stretching back to last season – while eight clean sheets in 10 matches is also a defensive record that cannot be disputed.
Only an extremely impressive Man City side have scored more than their 23 goals to date, meanwhile, and as witnessed against Spurs last weekend the Red Devils have brought back another trait from the Ferguson days by fighting until the very end.
Ten of United’s Prem goals this term have come in the final 10 minutes of matches – 43% of their overall total – suggesting that, while it has not quite been a perfect campaign to date, at least in comparison to rivals Man City, there are more than enough positives to build on as they remain on course for silverware on four fronts.
Recent form in Premier League: WWWDLW
Recent form (all competitions): DWLWWW
Chelsea have shipped 11 goals in their six matches without N’Golo Kante in central midfield and, after working his way back to fitness on the training ground, Conte may well risk throwing the Frenchman back into the starting fold.
The former Juventus boss seems unlikely to stop his defensive tinkering just yet, with Cesar Azpilicueta in contention to replace Antonio Rudiger in the back three in a slight reshuffle, while Davide Zappacosta is in line to start after impressing against Bournemouth.
Marquee summer signing Alvaro Morata has struggled for form since picking up an injury before the last international break, scoring no goals and setting up just one in his last six matches, putting even more pressure on Eden Hazard – three goals and an assist in the same timeframe – to step up to the plate on Sunday.
In terms of the visitors, Mourinho is expected to recall Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia after giving them a breather in midweek, but further forward Jesse Lingard picked up a knock against Benfica and is a fitness doubt for this weekend.
Michael Carrick, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini have all stepped up their respective recovery programmes, meanwhile, though this trip to West London will come too soon for all three of the central midfielders.
Mourinho may therefore go with the same XI that saw off Spurs a week ago, meaning another start for Nemanja Matic, who has been used in every minute of every Premier League and Champions League game since arriving from Chelsea in the summer.
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Zappacosta, Bakayoko, Kante, Alonso; Pedro, Hazard; Morata
Manchester United possible starting lineup:
De Gea; Bailly, Smalling, Jones; Valencia, Matic, Herrera, Young; Mkhitaryan; Rashford, Lukaku
Head To Head
Chelsea have won five of their last six home matches against Man United in all competitions, most recently beating their rivals 1-0 here in an FA Cup quarter-final tie in March.
The Red Devils actually went 12 games overall without a victory against the Blues prior to their well-earned win the last time they faced off in April, shackling their opponents’ attacking players and scoring a couple of goals through Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera.
United’s last win at Stamford Bridge came in October 2012, with Javier Hernandez netting the winner 15 minutes from time in a five-goal thriller after Chelsea recovered from two down.