Chelsea and Manchester United’s Premier League clash on Sunday feels like a pivotal moment in their respective seasons, one that will tell us much about their title credentials. Throw in uncertainty over Antonio Conte’s future, Jose Mourinho returning to the club he’s most synonymous with, potential absences of some key individuals and differing form, and the 4.30pm kickoff at Stamford Bridge is an incredibly alluring affair – even if it will unlikely be the most entertaining. This week’s experts – Chelsea FanCast‘s David Chidgey, aka Stamford Chidge, and Niven Marston from ManUNews – share their thoughts on how this one will pan out.
Chelsea certainly enter Sunday’s clash in worse form than the visitors. The Blues haven’t put in a truly convincing display since beating Atletico Madrid in September and were handed a 3-0 defeat by Roma earlier this week. What’s the biggest positive Chelsea can take into tomorrow’s game?
DC: We didn’t play that badly against Roma bar the two defensive mistakes in the first half and created several goal scoring chances. Also, we are still in a good position to qualify from the Champions League group so we shouldn’t be too downhearted. But the shambolic nature of the second half means Conte will have his work cut out to lift them for United on Sunday.
Matching up has become a recurring theme in the Premier League since Antonio Conte introduced 3-4-3 at Chelsea last season. It certainly worked for United last weekend against Tottenham, switching from their usual 4-2-3-1 to cancel out a potent attack before taking a chance at the other end. As Chelsea use a similar setup to their London rivals, should United stick with the same formation at Stamford Bridge?
NM: Mourinho will almost certainly play 3-4-3 (or rather 5-4-1) on Sunday in a desperate attempt not to lose the game. We’ve seen him do so on many occasions in the past, and the game at Stamford Bridge should be no different. His side look extremely comfortable defensively when he has deployed that formation, and with Chelsea’s obvious threat going forward it would be strange for him not to opt for a similar tactic. Of course, when United do approach games in this ‘defensive-minded’ manner it does highlight issues going forward – but Mourinho will probably envision his side snatching a goal on the counter-attack.
But considering how poor Chelsea have looked in recent weeks, particularly defensively, is this not United’s best chance of sealing a convincing win over a big six rival away from home with a more offensive-minded display?
NM: Chelsea’s defensive frailties are there for everyone to see. There will be calls for Mourinho to go at his former side and attack, putting pressure on an already shaky back line. But the same questions were asked of Liverpool’s defence in the build up to their game with United, and we all saw how the Portuguese approached that. Needless to say, it is fairly obvious that Mourinho will play it safe against Chelsea too. Of course, it is easy for fans and pundits to sit back and say ‘the opposition’s defence is weak, why doesn’t he go for it’, but you have to credit Mourinho for what he has done during his managerial tenure and understand that this is a man who hates losing – he sees weaknesses in his side that he doesn’t trust not to lose the big games.
Indeed, defensive performances have been Chelsea’s biggest problem – 13 goals conceded in their last seven games and just a single clean sheet in that time. It’s a far cry from how imperious the Blues were at the back last season and at this point, it’s not even obvious what Conte’s strongest back three actually is. Which three centre-backs would you start against United?
DC: The back three who performed so well when we won the title: Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta. Due to suspension, injury and perhaps the need to rotate, that back three has played in only two of the ten Premier League matches this season. Common sense says that you need to have a settled back three and this season we haven’t. This, I think, has been one of the main causes of the defensive issues we have seen recently.
In stark contrast, no side has conceded less goals than Manchester United in the Premier League this season – just four in ten games. What do you see as Chelsea’s best chance of getting past what appears to be a virtually impervious Red Devils defence?
DC: Eden Hazard as usual will carry the burden of being our main creative playmaker and if we are to get anything out of the game then he will need to be on song. He’s the one Chelsea player who has the ability to find a pass, beat a player and find that bit of magic and class to break down the most stubborn of defences. But do not underestimate how important the return (hopefully) of N’Golo Kante will be. He brings energy and balance to the side – both of which have been lacking in recent weeks while he was injured. Not only does he protect the vulnerable back three but he allows the creative players to play, safe in the knowledge that if they lose the ball Kante has it covered. Hazard may be Chelsea’s best player but N’Golo Kante is Chelsea’s most important player.
From a United perspective, what do you think will be the deciding factor in this game?
NM: I think the attackers will have the deciding vote in the game. As I’ve discussed it seems as if Mourinho will approach the game very defensively, so if Chelsea are able to somehow break through and get a goal that will force United to change their tactics and seek to attack themselves. Similarly, if United are going to sit back and defend, it means Romelu Lukaku and co have to be on the ball when their opportunities arise. As we saw against Liverpool, the chances did not come too often for the United attackers, but there were one or two glorious opportunities for them to score. If Lukaku is presented with these sort of chances against Chelsea, he simply must take them.
And finally, let’s hear your score predictions…
NM: 1-0 Chelsea.
DC: Impossible to predict with Chelsea’s current inconsistency. Mourinho’s strategy is not to lose away to rivals and Conte cannot afford to lose given the current mood surrounding Chelsea and also the risk of falling further behind in the title race. It therefore points to a draw especially if Jose parks the bus. I hope Chelsea will nick it 1-0 with a bit of magic from Hazard!