Chelsea’s march to successfully finishing in the top four and gaining qualification for next year’s Champions League continues with a trip to Old Trafford to face the Premier League champions Manchester United. This will be the fifth time that these two sides have met this season with Chelsea having drawn once, lost once, and won twice in the four previous meetings.
This time, the meeting has a different connotation. With Chelsea pushing forward in the battle for the Champions League with Tottenham and Arsenal and United having already wrapped up this year’s league title, the pressure will be on the Blues, despite the match being away from home. In addition, the question for United will be whether or not they decide to put on a show in front of the home crowd or Sir Alex Ferguson decides to rest one or two players.
Despite the Blues having more to play for, I don’t expect United to slack off, though they did show one or two signs of complacency against Arsenal last week. The Gunners weren’t able to take advantage of that, but United were still able to eke out a draw away from home. However, Danny Welbeck will be unavailable for United, making the team selection a bit easier, while only Oriol Romeu misses out.
WWUD — What Will United Do?
Interestingly, last week, United did have one last motivating factor, despite having won the league. Going into the Arsenal match, If United would have won their last four matches, they would have eclipsed the record for most points in a season, 95, that was set by Chelsea under Jose Mourinho in 2005-2006. After that draw, United cannot surpass the record and therefore are simply playing for pride.
Just like last week against Swansea, United are in a position where they really have very little to play for and the question will be how motivated they will be. The x-factor in all of this is that Ferguson will more than likely not want a loss to Chelsea, and especially not to Rafa Benitez, so I fully expect United to come out with a full-strength side. Don’t be surprised if one or two players on the verge of qualifying to receive medals get a run out late in the match and appear on the substitutes’ bench.
Are the Blues the bogey team for United this season?
In the previous four meetings, a case could be made that Chelsea were every bit the equal of United in all four matches and had opportunities to win all four. In the first meeting in the league, the Blues went down 2-0 and fought back to level the match, only to see Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres sent off and United scored the third. In the first FA Cup match, Chelsea came back again from 2-0 down and were well on top of United, but couldn’t find the vital third goal.
Man for man, I think Chelsea’s best 11 is every bit as good as United’s, but the key area that I think the Blues can exploit in the midfield. The fact that United play with two up front and dedicated wide men means that Michael Carrick and a partner are asked to patrol the midfield and run it. The difference is that whether it’s Tom Cleverley partnering Carrick or Phil Jones, United’s midfield have had a very difficult time tracking the trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Juan Mata and the subtlety of the movement. If there’s one play that you can exploit, it is the midfield, solely because of the sheer lack of numbers there.
What has happened to Antonio Valencia?
One big positive for Chelsea will be the lack of form of Antonio Valencia. Over the past few seasons, it’s been the ability of Valencia to protect his right back behind him and the ability to push Ashley Cole back that was a key to United stopping Chelsea’s attack. Simultaneously, he could create opportunities for overlapping and could also prevent them. However, as of late, Valencia’s form has been so bad as of late that he’s selected at times because there is no one else. It is a weak side of the attack, made more noticeable because United’s greatest strength is their ability to use width to open the spaces for their strikers and provide them with the right service. With United lacking a true threat on the left with Ashley Young out and Shinji Kagawa not adapted to the league, losing the right side makes them much easier to deal with because you aren’t as scared of the ability of the center midfielders to create enough chances, especially if the pairing is Carrick and Jones.
Where is Wayne Rooney’s head and will he play?
This will be the major question for United’s off-season, and it’s a major question right now with the injury to Welbeck. Does Ferguson play Rooney, knowing that he does provide an additional body behind a striker like Robin van Persie or Javier Hernandez, or does he leave him out of the side and go with the aforementioned two as a duo?
It’s a real wild-card question for United because when he’s on form, Rooney is capable of fulfilling two main duties when he plays. He’s a great support striker who makes great runs from deeper areas into the box to free space up for his partner, and he’s also a great link man who can supply the ball from behind the striker while also acting as the third man in midfield that keeps them from being outnumbered.
The problem is that this season, he’s fallen out of favor with Ferguson, and his play has lacked the consistency that it normally does. Moreover, he’s looked somewhat sullen, almost to the point of sulking, when he’s out there and is being asked to play all sorts of positions that take him away from the action, such as taking up residence on the wing.
Rooney’s biggest strength is also his greatest weakness. Because he likes to be involved in every aspect of the game, he puts in the hard running but tends to drift around the pitch. When he’s on form, he’s brilliant in doing that and causes havoc. When he’s not on form, it becomes a liability because he’s not always in the proper positions in attack or defence, and he tends to make horrible decisions on the pitch.
My belief is that he plays, simply because he is a more natural partner for either van Persie or Hernandez than they are for each other. I do believe that if he does play, he will have an impact on the game, negatively or positively.
Will the famous rotation policy be in place with one eye on Tottenham on Wednesday?
This is the big question, and one that we won’t have an answer for until later today when the team sheet comes out. I know it’s not a popular viewpoint, but I do believe that Benitez has done a very good job with what he’s had to work with. Has he lost points in the league and lost ground to United? Sure, he has, but so have everyone else. United have been the most consistent team in the league, and even under Di Matteo, consistency in gaining points wasn’t one of our strongest areas.
Where I do give credit to Benitez is managing a very small squad through a season that will see us play a total of 70 matches and making sure that the squad, by and large, has had the energy to complete the marathon with just a few blips along the way. Remember that our current first team squad with just 21 first-team players that are fit and has managed to rotate them effectively. In this writer’s opinion, I think he might be the only manager on the planet that could have taken a 21-man squad through trips all over the globe, playing 43 matches in just 5 months and a bit. That takes some rotation, and I do think Benitez has handled it well.
This will be his major challenge. With Chelsea starting a run of 3 matches in 6 days with matches against United and Tottenham and with a top-four place on the line, Benitez selections will be all the more important. I believe that 4 points out of the next two matches is vital to ensuring our safety within the top 4 and a very good chance of top 3, but to do so, Benitez will have to pick the right sides. Back in October and November, Di Matteo needed a similar point total over two matches against Shakhtar Donetsk to ensure qualification from our Champions League group, but only managed a loss and a win. Let’s see if Benitez can take that next step and get us the points required, as that is what he’s most known for.