Manchester United return to league action on Sunday when they welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford looking to extend their 100% record. The Reds go into the game off the back of a midweek draw in Lisbon in the Champions League where the team was rotated for the first time this season. With 18 goals in their first four matches in the league, United will be full of confidence against a Chelsea side who have dropped just two points so far without being entirely convincing.
An opening day draw against Stoke has been followed by wins against West Brom, Norwich and Sunderland. Despite their lengthy pursuit of Luka Modric across the summer, new manager Andre Villas Boas had to contend himself with the creative midfield addition of Raul Meireles on transfer deadline day. Their most high profile signing was Juan Mata from Valencia who will add undoubted craft and guile to an ageing squad. Romelu Lukaku arrived from Anderlecht and will surely take the place of his hero Drogba at some stage in the next few years.
Villas Boas arrived from Porto in the summer with a reputation for being a keen student of the game following analysis roles under José Mourinho. A season of great success put the 33 year old to the top of many a chief executive's wishlist but it was Roman Abramovich who took the plunge and placed his faith in the charismatic Portuguese manager. Stability at Stamford Bridge is what is needed after a conveyor belt of bosses has seen the squad remain in tact but undoubtedly fail to improve to any great extent.
The biggest conundrum facing the Chelsea management is how to get the best out of Fernando Torres following his move from Liverpool in January. The £50m striker has scored just once for Chelsea since the move and has thus far looked a long way from the player that many were hailing as the premier striker in world football just a few years previously. The astute capture of compatriot Mata will no doubt assist in this quest but whether he can go onto regain his form is another matter entirely.
The failed pursuit of Modric was a blow to the Chelsea hierarchy as midfield invention has been a weakness at the club for a couple of seasons. While Meireles is a quality squad player, he does not possess the defence unlocking capability of the Croatian and it remains to be seen where he fits into the team when everyone is fit.
Neutral observers have been commenting on the ageing nature of the squad for a few seasons now yet they still remain competitive in each competition they take part in. Whether this turns out to be a season too far for the likes of Terry and Lampard remains to be seen but they will surely still be a major force once more this year.
Statzone compiled by Rahul Singh:
- The last three Premier League meetings between Chelsea and United all ended 2-1 as did the last meeting in the Champions League.
- If United beat Chelsea, it will be our 5th straight win & the best start in the League campaign since 1985.
- Chelsea have earned 22 points from 19 Premier League visits to Old Trafford, six points better than any other club.
- Chelsea are looking to avoid a fourth successive defeat against United in all competitions. United won four of our five meetings last season.
- The Blues have only kept one clean sheet in our last eight Premier League games - at Stoke on the opening day of the season.
- United are looking for an 18th successive Premier League win at Old Trafford
- The last occasion United dropped points at Old Trafford was in the 2-2 draw against West Brom on 16 October last year
- Since Chelsea beat us in April 2010 we have won 22 and drawn one of the home league games and are unbeaten there in 34 games in all competitions.
- Chelsea have won five times at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, more often than any other team
- United have averaged fewer points per game at home against Chelsea than against any other opponent (1.47)
The key to games between these two is often found out wide. United will look to Ashley Young to continue his fine form up against the defensively weak Boswinga while Nani will look to make a similar impact on Ashley Cole as Valencia made in the corresponding fixture last season. With Evra looking dangerous when he makes breaks into the opposition's half, the Reds will look to isolate Boswinga who will need assistance from Sturridge, a role that he has not shown he is capable of thus far.
The other main battle ground will be in central midfield where United will likely go in with a two man selection of Carrick and Anderson up against Chelsea's standard triumvirate of recent seasons. This has proved a successful tactic in the three most recent match ups between the teams (2 Champions League and 1 Premier League) as the Reds swift passing and stretching of the Chelsea team has ultimately led to success. If Mikel plays as the sitting midfielder then once again, I would expect Rooney to station himself in his area and deny him the time and space he is usually afforded. The Nigerian can be easily put off his game when placed under pressure as he lacks the necessary ball skills and awareness to cope.
The swift and fluid style that has epitomised the fast start United have made to the season could well turn out to be another crucial area. The likes of Terry, Alex and Ivanovic are all slow on the turn and the manager will look to Hernández to unsettle them at every opportunity as he looks to run in behind. The Chelsea back four will be unable to play the high line they are accustomed to doing against more pedestrian sides and this should create plenty of space in which the highly rated front four can work their magic.
From the away side's point of view, they will look to use the space that has been noticeable between the Reds defence and midfield in the early weeks of the season as a source for applying their own stamp on the game. Pressure on the opposition when in sight of goal has been lacking at times for a while now and this is an area that may well be punished very soon if it is not resolved. This was amply demonstrated in the Champions League Final against Barcelona and also in the pre-season friendly between the two in America.
In my opinion, there are two main areas of contention in the United line up for Sunday's game. Firstly in defence where Rio Ferdinand will surely slot back into the side after being left behind for the midweek trip to Lisbon. His partner though, is open to question. Smalling, Evans and Jones are the three under consideration and to be honest all of them would be acceptable to the vast majority of knowledgeable United fans. Phil Jones is my pick based purely on his wonderful start to life at United almost demanding a starting place. Chris Smalling would then slot in at right back with Jonny Evans dropping to the bench. It is entirely conceivable that Evans and Ferdinand will resume their partnership from the Bolton game last weekend with Jones at right back but I just get the feeling that Ferguson will want Jones in his customary role in the centre.
The other conundrum is the identity of Anderson's midfield partner. Michael Carrick would appear the favourite with Darren Fletcher a close second. However, the Scotsman is still feeling his way back to full fitness after his debilitating virus so I will go for Carrick to be the more defensive minded of the two. Arguments could be made for the selection of Giggs and Park after recent wonderful displays against this opposition but I see them best served on the bench ready to make an impression if the need arises.
For me the front four pick themselves. Although the return in midweek of Antonio Valencia was heartening and will add depth to the squad in the wide areas, it will be a few weeks before he achieves full match fitness.
The outside bet would be that the manager goes for a 4-5-1 formation to match up Chelsea in the central area of the pitch. While this is a possibility, I see no reason to disrupt the attacking force that we have seen in the opening weeks of the season devastate almost every defence. A more defensive formation sends out the wrong message rather than simply sending out our best available team and backing it to prevail.
For all the reasons listed above, I am very confident of victory in this match tomorrow. I feel that our high intensity and speed in the attacking third will prove too much for the likes of Terry and his colleagues to cope with. Although Chelsea will be a threat, I have faith in David De Gea and his team mates to snuff out any away team threat to see the Reds through to a comfortable 2-0 victory. On the scoresheet will be Young and Anderson.
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Do you agree with my predictions above? Would you go with Evans ahead of Jones in the centre of defence? Would you be happier with Fletcher alongside Anderson in the midfield? Please leave your comments below and I will respond to each one.