Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful manager the Premier League has ever seen; he has broken countless records, won 12 titles and swept all before him. That is to say, all, except for one team. Sunday’s opponents, Chelsea, are the only team in Premier League history to boast a positive win/loss ratio against the great man. Despite a recent 5 match unbeaten record against the Blues, it has been over 10 years since United beat them at their own ground. To make this task even more daunting, Chelsea are yet to even draw at Stamford Bridge this season, winning 5 out of 5 home fixtures. However, this doesn’t mean the game is a foregone conclusion. United are looking more confident in recent times, recording 4 straight victories after the Tottenham mishap, and have scored the most goals out of any Premier League team. With Chelsea the second top scorers; on paper we have a classic in store.
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Both teams are coming off European fixtures going into the Sunday showdown, yet it is United who will be feeling the rosier, after a trademark come from behind win against Portuguese side Braga in front of the Stretford End. Chelsea, on the other hand, endured a gruelling beating at the hands of the Ukrainians, Shakhtar Donetsk. Thoroughly outplayed, with only a consolation goal to cling to, their long journey home will have been further salt in the wound. Di Matteo will look to shake off the fatigue, and a home return to the Premier League will be a most welcome tonic. Chelsea are motoring along, having seen off both Arsenal and Spurs away, and winning 100% at home. United themselves aren’t in a bad position, only 4 points off the pace and winning all 3 away fixtures since the opening day disappointment at Goodison Park. Injuries are nothing new to an unfortunate United team, and Kagawa has been added to the list after falling to a knee injury against Braga. Chelsea will also be missing Lampard and Terry, which will force their hand somewhat in the first XI they put on the field.
Experimenting with formations seems to be a fixture of the Premier League this season. Manchester City have dabbled, with mixed success, with three at the back, whilst United and Chelsea have switched to a more narrow, diamond formation. For Chelsea, who, like a determined supermodel, have stuck rigorously to this thin set-up, this places a lot of importance on their two marauding fullbacks. Both Cole and Ivanovic have been encouraged to charge forward, and this added width has certainly become a key component of the Blues play this season. With Evra not having his best start defensively to a season, this will mean Sir Alex will have to devise a counter plan. Countering fullbacks usually is best done with two determined wingers, who can then pin-back their opposing players, who will fear for leaving too much space behind them. It is for this reason that Fergie may consider a return to the a more conventional formation with two out and out wide players, which could force Chelsea into a more restricting situation of being forced to go through the middle with no outlet to escape out wide. Indeed, when United have beaten Chelsea the recently, this charge of playing too narrow has been laid against them. If this tactic is to be enforced, Valencia will have to step up his recent play, although he could turn it up against Ashley Cole, who he enjoys playing against. If Fergie goes against using Nani on the left-wing, Robin van Persie dropping left could turn out to be a devastating weapon, as shown by his superb cross for Rooney’s equalising goal against Stoke.
Whilst United’s formation is subject to change, Chelsea’s is seemingly set in stone. Mata, Oscar and Hazard are likely to interchange their fairly central positions behind lead striker, Fernando Torres. These three dynamic forward players will mean Ferdinand and Evans will have to be on their toes and focuses throughout the match. Although Torres has been out of sorts lately, he seems to kick into an extra gear against United, scoring 4 in his lat 7 Premier League starts against them. As these three attacking midfielders are expected to start, this game is seemingly a perfect fit for Tom Cleverley, with his enthusiasm ideal for containing the speedy intensity of Chelsea’s midfield and forward line. However if, as it looks likely, Carrick and Scholes start in the middle, Sir Alex will be looking for Welbeck and Rooney to help out. Indeed, Rooney’s man-marking effort on Mikel at Old Trafford a few years ago swung that particular game in United’s favour.
Since the turn of the century United have only succeeded in keeping a cleansheet at Stamford Bridge twice in the Premier League, once in a 0-0 draw back in May 2007 and once even further back in 2002 when Scholes, van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar provided the Reds with a 3-0 victory. Chelsea have made a flying start to this season while United have been guilty of starting games on the back foot. It wouldn’t surprise me if United went a goal down early in the game but produced another heroic comeback, and with odds of 32.00 that’s got to be worth a flutter and certainly where Ian from @Red_Rants’ money’s going.
This game is a real humdinger on paper, but as we know, paper rarely corresponds to reality. What can be confidently predicted is that chances will be created by both teams and both should score, as long as they are focused and on their game. Simply because of Chelsea’s superior form, and Manchester United’s aversion to winning at Stamford Bridge, I’m going for a 2-1 Chelsea win, with Torres scoring the decisive goal. Yet, as we have found this season, where there is a Robin van Persie, there is a way.