By, Ayodeji Itasanmi (Twitter: @aryhorblueblood)
Old Trafford/February 25, 2018
Antonio Conte will surely have been pleased with the way his team performed on Tuesday night against Barcelona even though the general feeling after that match was that of disappointment with the away goal we conceded, and the manner it came about, which makes our trip to the Camp Nou on the 14th of March a little more daunting than it already is. But nothing is impossible in football especially since we have a precedent in case the players need some kind of inspiration. Before that trip to Catalonia comes about of course, we have a set of season-defining Premier League fixtures to navigate starting with our visit to Old Trafford this Sunday followed by another visit to Manchester to play run-away leader Manchester City, before then hosting relegation-threatened Crystal Palace. No matter how we play, the match at Old Trafford on Sunday is one we just cannot afford to lose as the race to finish in Champions’ League places gather pace.
Manchester United and Chelsea lock horns for the 179th time in all competitions on Sunday the first of which was a draw between the two teams on Christmas Day 1905. Manchester United led the head to head having amassed a total of 76 wins, 53 losses and 49 draws from the 178 matches against Chelsea since 1905. The wins in recent times however have been more evenly shared between the two teams. Since February 24th 1990 Chelsea and Manchester United have faced off a combined 78 times with Chelsea winning 27 and losing 26 with the remaining 23 matches ending in draws. In the Premier League however Chelsea has won 18 of the 51 matches against United so far in the competition and losing 14 with the remaining 19 ending in draws. Manchester United has not lost to any other team in the Premier League as often they lose to Chelsea putting an extra layer of pressure on Jose Mourinho and his team on Sunday. Chelsea enjoyed a great the deal of joy in our recent visits to Old Trafford. We have only lost once in our last five Premier League matches against United at Old Trafford (W1 D3) that win coming courtesy of a late Juan Mata goal in the penultimate game of the 2012/2013 season. We have failed to score in three of our last five visits to Old Trafford but we only lost one of those matches (D2). Antonio Conte has gotten the better of the Portuguese in three of the four times the pair has squared off and he’ll be leading his team to Old Trafford so full of confidence after watching his team almost dominate Barcelona in the Champions’ League on Tuesday night.
Willian’s name would surely have been penciled down for a starting place after his eye-catching performance against Barcelona on Tuesday night but I don’t expect to see the same eleven that took on Barcelona at Old Trafford. For one, I think we’ll need the physical presence of either Giroud or Morata for this match and Pedro is likely to be the one that will give way considering how impactful Hazard and Willian were against the Blaugrana. If last season’s corresponding fixture is anything to go by then Mourinho is likely to target Eden Hazard again and playing him as a ‘false 9’ will only be helping the host achieve their objective. I think Antonio Conte will keep faith with the same back three as against Barcelona because that trio performed exceptionally well barring that one lapse in concentration that proved costly in the end. N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas should also retain their places in central midfield even though Tiemoue Bakayoko is likely to be available for this one and Danny Drinkwater is another option should Conte decides to freshen up the team after the exertion on Tuesday. Ross Barkley may also have a role to play in this match especially if, as expected, Mourinho sets his team up not to get beat then the Englishman’s industry and football intelligence will surely come in handy to unlock what’s going to be a stubborn defence at Old Trafford. Personally I think Olivier Giroud suits this game better because he’s more accustomed to the physicality of the Premier League and Mourinho’s team epitomizes that physicality especially as Alvaro Morata is easing his way back in after a month out with a back injury. Emerson Palmieri as an option at left wingback but I don’t expect to see him start this match but a place on the substitutes’ bench would do his confidence no harm. Victor Moses should continue at right wingback after another assured performance on Tuesday and Thibaut Courtois should retain his place in goal to complete the lineup.
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Willian, Hazard, Giroud.
Last Five Matches: DWWLL
Injuries: David Luiz (Knock) –Out; Tiemoue Bakayoko (Knock) – Out; Ross Barkley (Hamstring) – Out.
Knowing Jose Mourinho he already has his starting XI for Sunday’s game ready barring any new injuries. He stayed true to his reputation against Sevilla on Wednesday night in the first leg of their UCL round of 16 clash by setting up not to get beat in other to go to his home leg with an advantage, but I don’t know if 0-0 is really an advantage considering Sevilla has scored in all their Champions’ League away matches this season, one of which was in England against Liverpool. Mourinho started Paul Pogba on the bench again on Wednesday night but it is not clear if that has anything to do with their on-going ‘feud’ or if he’s resting him ahead of the visit of the defending Premier League champions to Old Trafford on Sunday. Either way he got introduced earlier than anticipated no thanks to the injury to Ander Herrera. David De Gea was the reason Mourinho’s men left the Sanchez Roman Pizjuan with a positive result on the road to keeping his 19th clean sheet of the season and he’s a certainty to keep goal for United on Sunday barring any eventualities. Jose Mourinho would surely have been delighted to have Antonio Valencia back fit and except something happening between now and kick off the Ecuadorian is sure to lineup at right back for United on Sunday with another veteran Ashley Young lining up in the opposite flank, unless Mourinho decides to give Luke Shaw or Matteo Darmian an unlikely chance to impress. Mourinho always goes with his trusted XI for this type of matches as he does not like leaving anything to chance. Eric Bailly was back in the Manchester United squad for the first time since December for their trip to face Sevilla but he wasn’t involved at all, an indication that Mourinho is probably preparing to unleash him against the Blues on Sunday especially with Phil Jones considered a doubt for the match on Sunday. Chris Smalling will likely partner Bailly in the heart of the defence unless Mourinho decides to go with a back three if Danny Blind is fit enough to start. Mourinho has tried the three at the back formation three of the four times he has faced Antonio Conte’s Chelsea with just one victory to show hence he might be planning something new or just stick with his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. This is surely not the best of times for the relationship between Mourinho and his most expensive player Paul Pogba with the French player being listed as a substitute for his last three appearances, including in the Champions’ League on Wednesday, and he’s been substituted early in the last matches he started in the loss to both Tottenham Hotspurs and Newcastle United respectively so it’s yet to be seen if he resumes his partnership with Nemanja Matic at the base of the Manchester United midfield – with both Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini out injured – or if Mourinho keeps faith with academy graduate Scott McTominay who Mourinho heaped praises on after his performance in Spain on Wednesday. Mourinho has alternated between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations in his last five matches using the latter in the defeats to Spurs and Newcastle and the win over Huddersfield in the league and the former in their last two matches against Huddersfield in the FA Cup and Sevilla in the UCL, but he’s likely to line up with the trio Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez playing behind lone striker Romelu Lukaku. Juan Mata and Marcos Rashford are other options for a spot in the three behind the striker if Mourinho so decide. In the corresponding fixture last season, Mourinho played with five across midfield which allowed Ander Herrera to man-mark Eden Hazard out of the match but I doubt the Portuguese has that luxury for Sunday’s game especially with the Spaniard out injured.
De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Young; Matic, McTominay; Martial, Lingard, Sanchez; Lukaku.
Last 5 matches: DWLWL
Injuries: Ander Herrera (Hamstring) – Out; Marouane Fellaini (Knee) – Out; Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Knee) – Doubt; Phil Jones (Knock) – Doubt; Danny Blind (Ankle) – Doubt; Marcos Rojo (Knock) – Out.
N’Golo Kante vs. Nemanja Matic
These two used to be partners in the title-winning Chelsea squad of 2016/2017 but now find themselves in opposing teams hence whatever friendship they forged while playing together will be thrown to the back burner, at least for ninety minutes. Nemanja Matic had a bad game in the reverse fixture earlier in the season and so he’ll be looking for redemption at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Eden Hazard vs. Antonio Valencia
Eden Hazard’s performance against Barcelona on Tuesday night was somewhat subdued but that’s partially due to the fact he wasn’t in his natural position, something that’s not likely to happen again on Sunday. Having just made his return from a minor knock Eden Hazard is just the player Antonio Valencia would not want to face but has to come Sunday afternoon.
Victor Moses vs. Alexis Sanchez
These two are very familiar with each other from when the Chilean was representing the Gunners but now he has switched the red of Arsenal for the red of Manchester. Sanchez sure hasn’t lived up to expectations but that will not make him any less difficult to handle a fact that will not be lost on our Nigerian wingback.
Both Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho would know this is a must-not-lose match for both teams especially if as expected both Liverpool and Spurs win their matches on Saturday evening and Sunday respectively. There is certainly no love lost between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte and their rivalry is sure to continue while their players battle it out on the pitch. This game is what Mourinho makes of it but trusting Antonio Conte he will be giving his all to get the better of his Portuguese foe and he stated in his presser on Friday that he’ll be going for the win that will further strengthen our grip on fourth spot depending on the results involving Liverpool and Spurs. Our next assignment is another away trip to Manchester to face City in our bid to finish the season strongly and I hope we’ll be going into that match on the back of a positive result at Old Trafford on Sunday. KTBFFH, Blues!
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Telegraph UK
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