It is Louis van Gaal’s biggest challenge of the season: Saturday afternoon’s trip to Champions-elect Chelsea. If the revival in Manchester United’s fortunes over the past two months has been stark then perhaps the truest barometer of the Reds’ progress comes at Stamford Bridge. After all José Mourinho’s side is yet to lose at home in the Premier League this season and is the Premier League’s champion in all but name.
Yet, the narrative of this match has changed much in recent weeks. Where United might once have travelled with some trepidation, although never voiced, Van Gaal’s squad boarded the train south on Friday in buoyant mood. Six Premier League wins on the bounce makes United and not Chelsea the league’s form team. Add Chelsea’s middling recent performances into the mix, albeit downbeat matches that have not translated into poor results, and there are reasons for United’s manager to feel confident.
The match also represents a marker, not only of United’s progress, but the club’s trajectory overall. Results over the past six games cannot mask United’s fall from preeminence; the club will end the season without a trophy for a second campaign in succession.
Yet, Saturday’s result could add to a sense of momentum heading into another pivotal summer. Victory at Stamford Bridge would say much for United’s renewed status, not that Van Gaal is prone to lessen the scale of the challenge United faces on Saturday. Chelsea will win the Premier League, but results over the past two months demonstrate that United will likely mount a serious challenge to the Londoners next season.
“It is bigger than big,” said van Gaal on Friday. “Firstly, Manchester United has not given the best results in away games and, secondly, Chelsea do not lose so much at home. So it will be very difficult. Chelsea play at home but I think they will be satisfied with a draw. However, of course they want to beat Manchester United and we want to beat them.”
The fixture also brings together Mourinho and Van Gaal once again. Once colleagues, now competitors, the Dutchman finds much empathy with his former assistant, who could have been United’s manager, but for the dubious decision at boardroom to appoint David Moyes in 2013.
Between them the former Barcelona team-mates have won 40 trophies – a drive for silverware that has kept Van Gaal working into his sixties and seemingly as vigorously as ever.
“We live for these titles, we are doing it for that,” said Van Gaal of the pair’s essential simpatico. “That’s the only satisfaction – that you have a title. If you are second or third, you can still play Champions League, but it is the title that is more fixed for you.
“It comes with your name and that is why managers are fixated on titles. When you reach that goal, you are happy. To be involved with the game, to be involved with young people to reach the goal is another goal of mine. That’s why I am still a manager because I don’t have to work anymore.”
On the pitch United’s challenge comes both in Chelsea’s imperious home record and a spate of injuries that robs the side of four key players. Injuries to Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo will force the first major change in personnel in four games – and potentially an alteration to the successful shape Van Gaal has fashioned in recent weeks. It is a cruel blow at an inopportune moment.
With Carrick and Blind out, Luke Shaw is likely to come into a back-four that will also feature one of Tyler Blackett or Patrick McNair. In central midfield Van Gaal has toyed with the idea of dropping Wayne Rooney into a holding role, although Ander Herrera possesses the kind of game intelligence that is highly attractive in Carrick’s absence.
Mata will face his old club for the first time at Stamford Bridge and may well be joined in midfield by Angel Di Maria, United’s £60 million Argentine who has been out of the side in recent weeks.
“It cannot be worse because it’s two players in the left central defensive positions, and Jonny Evans is still suspended,” added Van Gaal.
“Blind and Carrick play in the holding position in midfield, so I have to change my line-up a lot against Chelsea. They are all from the game against Manchester City. Blind has played on because he always wants to play on, but the tackle from Kompany was of course the reason. Jones, I took him off the pitch already because he injured himself in the second half. Rojo, he was complaining after the match, and Carrick was also off. We had a big hope that Blind and Jones could reach this game but they could not.”
Not that Chelsea Coach Mourinho holds any sympathy for United; nor for opponents left behind in the west London club’s wake this season. Victory over United would leave Chelsea 11 points ahead of Saturday’s visitors, while there is already a seven point cushion to Arsenal in second place. For the first time in five years it is Chelsea’s blue that will adorn the Premier League trophy in May.
“Their squad is amazing, in numbers, players, experience, solutions,” said Mourinho on Friday. “Every week in my office we put up on the big screen the squad and the options our opponents will have. When I looked this week, for the first time I realised what they have. It’s amazing.”
While Mourinho’s squad is smaller it is yet to face the plethora of injury problems that cursed United in the autumn – and might have derailed a successful Chelsea campaign. The Portuguese is, however, without top scorer Diego Costa on Saturday. The Spaniard is out with yet another hamstring injury, while Loïc Rémy faces a late test on a calf strain/ Didier Drogba is likely to start and 17-year-old Dominic Solanke has been called up as an emergency alternative on the bench.
“I know the ideal scenario for people in this country would be for the Premier League to be more like the Championship, with four teams separated by a couple of points and nobody knowing who is going to be promoted or even in the play-offs,” said Mourinho. “But, since day one, we have been top. We are boring.”
Boring is an adjective that can no longer be applied to United. The Reds picked up plenty of post-Christmas points, but in a style that was roundly critised until the past six matches. Now, with Van Gaal’s side emphatically dispatching Manchester City, to add to victories over Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, momentum and a sense of excitement are reunited at Old Trafford.
It has been two years in the making. It will take another busy summer for United to catch up with Mourniho’s side, but the momentum is certainly with Van Gaal’s camp. Saturday will go a long way to testing just how far his side has come.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta; Ramires, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Hazard; Drogba
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Shaw; Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Di Maria, Young; Rooney
Chelsea: Cech, Filipe, Zouma, Oscar, Loftus-Cheek, Mikel, Cuadrado, Solanke, Rémy
United: Valdes, Rafael, Blackett, Thorpe, Januzaj, Lingard, Perreira, Wilson, Falcao, Van Persie
Chelsea 48 – Draw 51 – United 72
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, D England
Fourth Official: C Pawson
Chelsea 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney to score first in 1-1 draw @ 35/1
Running total: £10.50 up!