United vs Chelsea: A clash of the titans

N'Golo Kante of Chelsea vies for the ball against Paul Pogba of Manchester United. N'Golo Kante vies for the ball against Paul Pogba

It’s red vs blue, Jose Mourinho vs Antonio Conte, Manchester vs London, big spenders vs big spenders, a clash of titans. Will it be a tentative show of bus parking, or will we see the two seasoned foes release their supercars at each other? Writes RICHARD BROWN.

Manchester United will host Chelsea on Sunday for what is guaranteed to be a heated affair. Not only is it a meeting between two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, it is also a battle between two of its biggest personalities in Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. To add some extra spice, Sunday’s result will also go a long way to deciding each team’s top four prospects in what will be (to use an old cliche) a ‘six-point game’.

The two Premier League giants both played in the Champions League during the week, both squared off against Spanish opposition, and both clubs drew their respective matches, but that’s where the similarities end in their midweek European exploits. Chelsea played Barcelona who are one of the favourites for the competition and currently sitting atop the La Liga table, while United faced off against Sevilla, comparative European minnows and sitting in fifth in their domestic league, languishing a full 23 points behind Barcelona. Chelsea put in a spirited performance against Barca and can even feel somewhat disappointed that they let their lead slip in the second half. Manchester United, on the other hand, were largely abject and were thoroughly outplayed by Sevilla, who dominated possession, racked up 25 shots to United’s 6, and were only denied by the formidable David De Gea.

One might then expect Chelsea, having held Lionel Messi and his merry band at arm’s length, to go into the clash at Old Trafford confident to do the same to Mourinho’s men. Conte will likely use the same tactics he used to thwart Barca on Tuesday. Especially playing away from home, Chelsea will invite United to take the initiative, play narrow and force the Red Devils into ‘sterile domination’, and then look to hit them on the break with a pacy attack.

Speaking of Chelsea’s attack, who will Conte deploy in his vanguard? To be able to transition quickly and effectively in counter attacks, he’ll do well in keeping the pacy trio he used midweek. Eden Hazard in the false nine role, with the supporting cast of Willian and Pedro, constantly interchanging might be just what is needed against an often fragile United defence. Or will he opt for one of his two traditional centre forwards in Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud to compete with the considerable height of the Old Trafford outfit? The former strategy is more likely given Morata’s recent form/fitness and Giroud’s lack of pace. One of the latter can always be brought on late on if a plan B is required – Giroud’s penchant for making meaningful impact late in games for Arsenal, won’t have escaped Conte.

Mourinho’s team sheet will also make for interesting reading. The recent reported ‘feud’ between him and star man Paul Pogba saw the Frenchman on the bench for their first CL knockout during the week, only then to replace the injured Ander Herrera in the 17th minute. The £89-million player, however, did little to win back the confidence of his manager with the minutes he was afforded against Sevilla. So, with Herrera definitely out for Sunday, Mourinho has a decision to make between playing the embattled Pogba or the industrious Scott McTominay. Should he opt for a three-man defence to mirror Chelsea’s (as he did in the reverse fixture), Mourinho may play Nemanja Matić and McTominay centrally and Pogba in a more advanced position, which would then make for an intriguing contest with Chelsea’s Energizer bunny N’Golo Kante.

The other question that Mourinho will have on his mind, is what to do with Alexis Sanchez, who has hardly hit the ground running in Manchester. Before Sanchez’s highly commemorated arrival, Antony Martial was having something of a purple patch on the right but was unceremoniously displaced by the former Arsenal player. However, despite Sanchez having little effect in United’s last few matches, it’s hard to see Jose doing anything other than sticking with the Chilean – after all, he has the ability to unlock any defence, and Mourinho will be hoping Sanchez packs his bump key.

United will certainly need Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Martial/Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard/Juan Mata to be at their best if they’re to unsettle the three-man defence of Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen and César Azpilicueta. Apart from one or two silly mistakes, Conte’s defenders remained resolute and kept the menacing trio of Messi, Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta unusually quiet. Conte will also be hoping that Cesc Fabregas repeats the defensive masterclass he put on display on Tuesday. Alongside Kante, the Spaniard was excellent in nullifying any potential attacks, and was superb in the transition, instantly turning provider to the fluid front three in Chelsea’s counterattacks.

The last mini battle that may determine who comes out tops, will be between the two sets of fullbacks/wingbacks. Marcos Alonso vs Antonio Valencia will make for a fascinating contest, while United fans will be hoping that Ashley Young will turn in a better performance than what he’s been able to muster of late, or Moses might wreak havoc. The majority of Sevilla’s key passes came down the left flank, leaving Young for dead, and Chelsea will be champing at the bit to put the England international under pressure. Young was never the most defensively adept, but it’s no coincidence that his recent dip in form commenced around the same time that he was paired with Sanchez on the left, a man not all too bothered about tracking back and helping out his fullback.

It’s hard to pick a winner here. United will have the advantage of playing at home, while Chelsea’s confidence might be slightly higher after the week that was. Perhaps the take-away stat, as per Opta, is that Manchester United have lost more games (18) and conceded more goals (67) playing Chelsea in the Premier League than against any other side. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, and with United a mere three points ahead of Chelsea, the result could either see them level after the weekend or United six points ahead in the unforgiving race for top four spots.

All in all, a fascinating clash to look forward to. A ‘Super Sunday’ indeed.

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