We’re firmly amid the Premier League’s notoriously hectic winter schedule with our second round of fixtures in the space of just three days. Boxing Day produced some incredible results – most particularly Southampton’s shock 4-0 win over Arsenal – and we at Football Fancast are expecting similar scorelines this afternoon.
Despite their recent struggles for form, Manchester United’s 5.30pm clash with Chelsea is unlikely to disappoint in that regard. Although goals haven’t exactly been forthcoming in their last six encounters with each other, scoring just nine, red cards and last-minute drama has become a staple ingredient in this ever-anticipated fixture.
Logic suggests Chelsea enter today’s fixture as the favourites despite their league standing of 15th place. United haven’t beaten them for over two years and are amid a run of four straight defeats across all competitions.
But Old Trafford always comes with that air of impenetrability and home advantage could prove to be a huge factor this afternoon – so who will come out on top? In an effort to shed some light on the debate, here are FIVE key battles that could well decide today’s match.
If Louis van Gaal is to turn the tide in United’s run of four consecutive defeats, he’ll have to do something he’s failed to in his last three attempts against Guus Hiddink – claim at least a point.
Indeed, Chelsea’s interim gaffer boasts three straight wins against his countryman, all with PSV against AZ Alkmaar during the 2005/06 campaign.
Of course, that was a decade ago and much has changed since then. But the two former Netherlands managers have a long-standing rivalry and notoriously juxtapose each other in terms of coaching style, van Gaal being more of a training ground disciplinarian and Hiddink better famed for his man management abilities.
They’ve clashed as Ajax and PSV managers and Barcelona and Real Madrid bosses and will now face each other heading two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs amid unexpected malaise.
Both will see today’s game as the first step in reviving their faltering legacies – LVG looking to keep his job and Hiddink hoping a positive result can catalyse improvement from Chelsea as they enter the second half of the season.
With Diego Costa suspended after picking up a fifth yellow card of the season against Watford on Boxing Day, understudy striker Loic Remy is set to be handed the chance to impress his new manager with a starting berth this afternoon.
The France international hardly saw the light of day under Jose Mourinho but his Premier League scoring credentials are undoubted, having arrived at Chelsea in summer 2014 with 20 goals in 42 top flight appearances to his name.
A few weeks ago, you perhaps wouldn’t have fancied his chances against United’s backline and particularly centre-back Chris Smalling, who helped the Red Devils claim nine clean sheets from his first 15 Premier League outings of the campaign.
But amid United’s harrowing losing streak, the England international has seen seven goals go past him in his last three appearances across all competitions. As United’s most experienced and dependable defender, he must inspire a better defensive performance from Louis van Gaal’s side against Chelsea.
A battle between two of the most talented England internationals of their generation now seemingly sliding down the slope of inevitable decline.
John Terry is Chelsea’s captain and leader and rightfully claimed a spot in last season’s PFA Team of the Year. But whilst watching the Blues concede 29 times already this term, the 35-year-old has looked lost, laboured, slow and ordinary for much of the campaign.
Wayne Rooney likewise, despite donning United’s armband, has managed just two goals and one assist in 13 Premier League outings this season – averaging a miserly 2.2 shots, 1.1 created chances and 0.6 successful dribbles per match.
Both represent how their respective sides have faltered this season – United in attack and the Blues in defence – and both have been dropped for short periods; including on Boxing Day, when Rooney was benched in favour of Marouane Fellaini.
So amid a fixture that could have a huge impact on the seasons of two fallen giants, both captains will be desperate to lead their sides to victory with an improved performance this afternoon.
If there’s one Manchester United attacker who can be relatively pleased with his contribution this season, it’s probably former Chelsea man Juan Mata.
The Spaniard – who looks set to continue in his right midfield berth this afternoon – has recorded the most goals, the most assists and the most created chances of any United player this term, making him in some way responsible for 41% of the Red Devils’ 22 Premier League goals.
Furthermore, the 27-year-old will be desperate to produce top form against a club that deemed him surplus to requirements in January 2013, despite previously claiming back-to-back Player of the Year awards at Stamford Bridge.
That being said, if there’s one Chelsea defender who can feel largely happy with his efforts this term, despite the Blues’ harrowing defensive record, it’s fellow Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta.
The versatile full-back has been more dependable than most this term – albeit with a few individual errors here and there – with averages of 3.4 tackles, 2.4 interceptions, 1.2 successful aerial duels and 2.1 clearances per match.
He’s one of the first names on the Chelsea team-sheet these days and will be keen to maintain usual standards against an international team-mate.
A skirmish between two players both making their first starts since recent injury layoffs, Eden Hazard returned to action with a substitute outing against Watford on Boxing Day whilst Matteo Darmian looks set to be reinstated in United’s backline after coming off in a 3-2 defeat to Wolfsburg earlier this month.
Of course, Hazard was last season’s PFA Player of the Year and despite his struggles this season, is still considered to be the Blues’ talismanic influence in the final third. Still awaiting his first full outing under Guus Hiddink, everybody will be excited to see whether Jose Mourinho’s departure unleashes the world-class creative instincts we all know the Belgium international possesses.
Meanwhile, Darmian has endured a half-season of two halves since moving to Old Trafford in the summer; initially impressing before coming off the boil and even finding himself hooked at halftime during a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in October.
But following recent injury bouts, this touchline battle could well depend on who rediscovers their match sharpness first. Having received 16 minutes against Watford, logic suggests it will be Hazard.