Aside from the Derby della Madonnina (Milan Derby), there probably isn’t a fixture in all of Europe where the context and significance has changed so much over the past few years, as with Manchester Utd vs Chelsea. For almost ten years, it stood uncontested in the English game as the most important and most glamorous fixture on the calendar – plainly however, that is no longer the case, with the two sides right now as grossly imbalanced in terms of quality, as they have been, probabaly since Roman Abramovich’s takeover. Last season our 3-0 home win was immensely straightforward, whilst our goalless draw at Old Trafford was perhaps, in hindsight, really only the result of a severe overestimation of David Moyes’ squad and tactics. And now, Sunday’s game will pit together two sides with drastically different aims and ambitions, with one going all-out for league glory, the other just trying to maintain steady progress throughout a much needed year of transition. It might not bear the title implications it once did, but fortunately (for other reasons) it is still an absolutely fascinating fixture. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting reasons why…
Battle of the World’s Top 2 Young Goalkeepers: After an extremely shaky start to his career in the Premier League, David De Gea has truly become one of the division’s best stoppers and a top all-round keeper. He is utterly indispensible to his side right now, evidenced by his fantastic contribution to their win over Everton a few weeks ago. Those pointing to how quickly and greatly the Spaniard has improved though, often don’t realise that our young Belgian stopper is a full 18 months younger and, in my opinion, for the last two years has already been at the standard which De Gea is now. You could rightly point out that Courtois has spent his career thus far behind vastly superior defences, but if one of these two is soon destined to become recognised globally as the best in the world, I’d say our Belgian ‘wonder-kid’ is clearly ahead at the moment.
The Past vs The Present of Chelsea’s #10s: I find it difficult to summarise my feelings on Juan Mata. I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him struggle at a club because 1) he’s a lovely bloke and 2) he’s a phenomenal player to watch and was never anything but brilliant for Chelsea. On the other hand, his current problems were hardly unforeseeable – he must have known he was joining a club who were panic buying and who clearly had no set role for him to occupy. He certainly isn’t missed on the field at Stamford Bridge either. On current form Oscar is every bit as technically brilliant as our former Spanish talisman and is also far more of a team player. Looking back, the permanent replacement of Mata with the Brazilian in that number 10 role looks to have been a wholly necessary move, with regards to future development and success of this group of players.
Two Teams Embodied by their Defensive Midfielders: It seems highly likely that whatever these two sides achieve over the next few seasons, both Daley Blind and Nemanja Matic will both play key parts. Their match up this weekend I think represents the overall contest quite accurately. Matic is composed, strong, adaptable, resilient, consistent and occasionally brilliant when he needs to be. Whilst Blind may be classy, exciting and versatile, he’s also inexperienced in top flight football, unbalanced in his skill set and sometimes lacking in substance, much like the team he plays for.
Jose Mourinho vs Louis Van Gaal: I guess it’s a shame for the neutrals that a managerial confrontation between (probably) the two most self-assured, outspoken coaches in the world, will be such a mutually respectful encounter. Mourinho was given his first real responsibilities and oppurtunities to contribute to the management of a senior side under Van Gaal’s tutorship at Barcelona. Both men have only spoke in terms of pure admiration for the other’s talents since then. Their one and only meeting to date was the 2010 Champions League final where Jose’s Inter were victorious, it’s a shame their second meeting will be on less equal terms but we should look forward to some far more momentous contests between these two in their current roles, hopefully for a long time to come.
Battle of the League’s Two Biggest Signings: Few could deny that the two biggest signings made this summer by English clubs, were the deals which bought Cesc Fabregas and Angel Di Maria to the Premier League. Both men are world-class in their positions and have been, by a distance, their respective team’s best player so far. I find it interesting to consider how they both provide similar things on the pitch, despite being stylistically quite different – both of them centre their game on intelligent passing along with driving runs from midfield. The crucial difference however is that whilst Chelsea are structured in a way which allows Fabregas to play his game perfectly, Di Maria’s presence in midfield clearly unbalances United. Starting the Argentine in such a deep position exposes them defensively, which puts a lot of pressure on him to consistently deliver with goals and assists. It’s axiomatic that if United are going to win on Sunday, Di Maria will most likely have to be brilliant.
Radamel Falcao vs Chelsea, Round 2: The Colombian may be a doubt for the weekend but Van Gaal could hardly be blamed if he was desperate to get his star striker in the XI on Sunday – given what happened the last time he faced Chelsea. Thankfully, the context is slightly different this time around, compared to what was possibly our most comprehensive defeat of the decade, and Falcao does not have the fitness, the form, the understanding or the level of support from his teammates which he had when he tore us apart in the European Super Cup two years ago. He is still of course a threat which needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness, especially with Gary Cahill’s defending of pacy and smart attackers becoming an increasing area for concern.
Who Will Chelsea Play Upfront? While the hosts will have the choice of fielding Robin Van Persie or Falcao or both, Mourinho’s selection decision for the forward position will be much less straightforward. He would surely be crazy to risk Diego Costa, who was hospitalised with illness this week and is still recovering from long-term muscle injuries. Loic Remy is out with a groin strain and Didier Drogba is also probably not fit to play a full 90 minutes and is not the ideal style of forward for the game anyhow. Of all the midfielders we have who can play as a ‘false 9’, Andre Schurrle is recovering from illness also and was poor in the position at Old Trafford last season, Fabregas has good experience in the role but is surely needed in midfield, whilst Eden Hazard has done the job once, in a 3-0 away defeat to Juventus in 2012, where he actually played quite well, but was offered zero support throughout an abject team performance. It’s a tough decision – I have no idea what we’re going to do.
The first observation to be made, considering the likely starting XIs, is what a wonderfully far cry United’s backline is from their 2008 side, where Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra made up what was probably the best defence in Europe. Luke Shaw could be world class but is still raw, whilst Rafael remarkably, despite six years of Premier League experience, manages to still look even rawer. Phil Jones has been pretty good this season but often struggles against the best teams and isn’t helped by being partnerned with Marcos Rojo, who just looks deeply average. Blind is a wonderfully skilful player but he’s not the quickest or the strongest and is not supported well by Ander Herrera or Di Maria and Van Gaal may be forced to field Marouane Fellaini to sure up the midfield. Should he not deem Falcao fully fit, Adnan Januzaj is another quality option to play in attack with Mata behind the front man.
Once again the biggest and only selection story for Chelsea is regarding the centre forward. The choice between fielding an unfit, 36 year old Drogba and a false 9 are both unlikely to appeal to Mourinho. Personally I hope he opts for the latter. If Ramires is available and is selected, as he almost invariably is in big away matches, it’d be an awful shame if it is Oscar who is once again dropped to make room – with the Brazilian in such wonderful form at the moment.
Ultimately what I think makes this game so interesting, is the fact that I’ve got no idea how Mourinho will approach the tie, tactically. Up against a side where the disparity between the quality of their defence and attack is so great, the two choices are obvious. Do you go all out and effectively instigate a game of we attack, you attack and bank on your defence to be more solid? Or do you focus on stifling their best players, safe in the knowledge that chances will come on the counter attack, and put your faith in the forwards to put them away? It’s not an obvious choice and the unavailability of our top two centre forwards makes it even more difficult and it inclines me to believe Mourinho will opt for the latter strategy. Either way it will be intriguing, and hopefully an exciting, tactical contest, with another victory providing another huge surge of momentum as we begin to take total charge of this league campaign.