Jose’s return to Stamford Bridge always promised to be one of this season’s most intriguing narratives; aside from his grumbling about Conte’s touchline exuberance however, the Portuguese featured very little in the Monday papers, following his side’s 4-0 battering back in October.
Tomorrow’s FA Cup quarter final tie promises, sadly, to be far a more interesting sporting contest, against two far more settled sides than those which met five months ago. It would be foolish to dismiss Man Utd as anything other than serious competitors for the Cup at this stage.
Their relentless inability to move out of 6th place has been amusing to watch, but in truth, it’s a position which hasn’t reflected their respective quality compared to the rest of the league for some time. After Chelsea and Tottenham, I think they’ve actually been the division’s third most consistently impressive side this season; only a terrible start and a sequence of unaccountable individual errors have stopped them from climbing to a more suitable rung on the league table.
This is the hardest of our games for a long time to come up with a prediction – here are four reasons why I’m really looking forward to it –
- This is the first game we’ll play in a long time that feels like a genuinely even contest. Our lead at the top of the table has meant for ages that our approach to most games has been such that a draw (or even a loss) wouldn’t be the end of the world. And it seems likely that will continue to be the case until May. These remaining FA Cup matches will probably be the only times we’ll see Conte get to pit his side against direct rivals, on a truly equal footing, before next season.
- Though I don’t think it’s particularly logical, the Italian still holds a reputation for not having the greatest record in big matches. His record in Europe with Juventus being the evidence most commonly cited. I think he’s already demonstrated the flimsiness of this view with victories over all his main rivals this season (not counting Liverpool – who don’t count) – but still, a cup win over arguably Europe’s greatest manager in knockout football, would go some way to further flattening this lazy perspective.
- As always, they probably need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but still, Mourinho’s back handed compliments over our ‘defensive’ approach this season have been a tad confusing. Especially given his own side’s recent struggles going forwards. Given his 14 year habit of resorting to conservative tactics in big matches, this game will be a good indicator of whether he has genuinely had a change of heart (I doubt it).
- Lastly, given the one sided nature of the last meeting, it’ll be interesting to see what changes the two coaches make, if any. Mourinho went with Pogba in a #10 role that day with Fellaini as a holding midfielder. It didn’t work – obviously. The Frenchman had no time on the ball in such an advanced position; Azpilicueta and Kante crowding him out excellently. Jose still has a difficult choice to make however. With Zlatan suspended there is a worrying lack of height in attack – Chelsea’s one weakness in defence this season having been defending long diagonal balls into the box, and Rashford on his own through the middle doesn’t represent much of a threat in that respect.
Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Costa, Hazard
De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Carrick, Herrera, Pogba; Mkhitaryan, Martial, Ibrahimovic
Every member of the XI which Antonio Conte selected back in October has gone on to justify his starting place categorically, the only decision he seems to face each week is whether to risk starting Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard has been in great form but hasn’t started in a big game yet this season when Matic has been available. We’ll probably only see him if we’re trailing or drawing after 75 mins – when he’ll probably come on for Pedro.
The two main differences in the Utd team since our last meeting have come about through Jose realising that 1) he still needs Michael Carrick and 2) Henrikh Mkhitaryan is actually quite good – the end result is a pretty well balanced side. The use of the Armenian and Martial on the wings must be a tempting idea, to keep the Chelsea wing backs from pressing forwards. Using Juan Mata as an inside forward is his other option – though the Spaniard is still yet to play well against his former club.
I think this will be an exceptionally tight game, which could very well go to extra time and probably end up being decided by a single goal. I make Chelsea just favourites to go through. United’s terrible record at Stamford Bridge doesn’t bode well for them, with only two wins in the last 15 years (both very much undeserved). Their mid-week flight to Russia won’t help them either, whilst the absence of Ibrahimovi? deprives them of by far their most important player in these big games. Diego Costa meanwhile has scored in his last three matches and, scanning the two likely line-ups, looks by far the probably match winner. I’m going for 2-1 win, with Costa in extra time.
Enjoy the game!