The season may be winding down, but Sir Alex Ferguson appears in no mood to for his team to let up just yet. Manchester United’s creditable draw at Arsenal last weekend followed a slow start at the Emirates, but a strong second half performance left Ferguson’s men disappointed to leave the north London with just a point.
What then of United’s fixture with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday? With little on the line for the Reds, but everything for Rafa Benitez’ visitors, it is another match of contrasting motivations.
The title secured, Ferguson’s men have little but a modicum of revenge at stake. And pride in the integrity of competition, of course, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur each chasing Champions League places.
After all, while United secured victory at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League earlier this season, Chelsea knocked Ferguson’s side out of two cup competitions during the campaign.
Meanwhile, Benitez has just a handful of games to secure Champions League football next season, with Chelsea in a three-way race for third and fourth spots in the Premier League.
United, in relaxed mood, will surely lack the a certain edge on the biggest occasion, of course. But if the Reds’ second-half performance against Arsenal is any evidence, Ferguson is unlikely to being in charitable mood. Not, of course, given the personal animosity between the Scot and Benitez, which has rarely been kept below the surface since the Spaniard’s “facts” rant in January 2009.
This is a relationship built on anything but trust and mutual respect. Indeed, Benitez is one of the few managers to eschew the norms of managerial conduct, says Ferguson. The Spaniard accused Ferguson of refusing to shake his hand after the 2-2 FA Cup draw earlier this season.
“At the end of a game I always shake hands and we always have a meeting in my office afterwards with both sets of staff,” said the 71-year-old United manager this week.
“It is the right thing to do. It is an opportunity to get away from the game itself. You maybe see managers twice a year, so that opportunity to spend half an hour with them after a match is vital. You can discuss your jobs and a lot of issues.
“It is not easy if you have lost a game to go in. It is our chance to show we are Manchester United. No matter the result, go in. He (Benitez) came in once when he was at Liverpool. I don’t think he has come in again.”
Benitez says he will not share a glass with Sir Alex on Sunday either whatever the result.
Chelsea beat FC Basel on Thursday to reach the Europa League final, one goal of the three handed to Benitez when he took the reigns earlier in the campaign.
The west London outfit lost an FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City, while the Blues slipped to fourth in the Premier League after victories for both Arsenal and Spurs on Saturday. Next Wednesday’s clash against Spurs could prove decisive in the race for fourth.
But it has also been a period of upheaval at Stamford Bridge, with Benitez not only facing protests from the terraces, but standing accused of prioritising cup competitions over Chelsea’s greater need for Champions League football next season.
“He is very concerned about his CV,” jibed Ferguson. “He refers to it quite a lot.”
Meanwhile, Benitez this week accused Ferguson of buying years of success – and suggested that the relationship between the two managers has been strained only because of the Spaniard’s challenge to the older man.
“When you are with a top side, and you have had more money than anyone for years, then you can keep winning and you can keep talking,” said Benitez, who will again be out of a job come 19 May.
“He doesn’t (like me), he doesn’t, but it depends on the moment. You have to do what you have to do for your team. At the time (2009), he knew that Liverpool were very close. That was the situation. Now it is very different because they have won the title. But are they better than Manchester City? I am not sure. Are they better than Chelsea? I am not sure.”
Ferguson’s team heads into the clash fresher, but without a clutch of players. Ashley Young remains out, while Danny Welbeck is unlikely to return before next week’s fixture with Swansea City. However, veteran Paul Scholes should return to the squad for Sunday’s match.
“Welbeck is out of Sunday,” Sir Alex confirmed. “The rest are all fit. Scholes and Vidic are training and I’ll probably put Scholes on the bench on Sunday to get him back into the fray. I’d love him to play in the Swansea game.
“Chelsea have done fantastically well over the last few weeks and they are in the final of the Europa League. Chelsea are chasing a Champions League place as well and we’ll be playing the strongest team we can. We need to play with good enthusiasm and enjoy it. We should express ourselves and try to finish off a good season.”
Meanwhile, Benitez’ team heads north with rumours of José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge resonating throughout the travelling support. It will do little but undermine the Spaniard’s position.
Still, with the Blues reaching the Europa League final, the mood in the camp is buoyant. The side also receives a double boost, with left-back Ashley Cole returning after missing Thursday’s Europa League win over Basel through suspension, and striker Demba Ba is also available again.
Oscar, John Terry and Eden Hazard could all return after being rotated out of the side for the clash with Basel. However, Benitez must balance his line-up against United against the one that played against the Swiss, and Wednesday’s crucial fixture with Spurs.
Manchester United v Chelsea – Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 5 May 2013
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Giggs; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Jones, Evans, Powell, Scholes, Cleverley, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Hernández
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Lampard, Mikel; Oscar, Hazard, Mata; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Hilario, Bertrand, Terry, Azpilicueta, Ramires, Moses, Benayoun, Marin, Ake, Ferreira, Ba.
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Massey
Fourth Official: A Marriner
Last 10: United 5, Chelsea 3, Draw 2
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 46, Draw 49
- Wayne Rooney’s future may be uncertain, but his numbers remain positive, with 123 attacking contributions this season, as well as a pass in the opponent’s half once every 3.1 minutes on average;
- French international Patrice Evra currently lies third in the United squad for crosses delivered with 42 – he is the second oldest full-back in the league to have broken the 30-cross barrier, behind Reading’s Nicky Shorey;
- Danny Welbeck has been deployed up-front and on the flank this season, but boasts just a 56.3 per cent shot accuracy rate in front of goal despite managing an attempt on goal once every 42.2 minutes he’s been on the pitch;
- Frank Lampard scored last week, edging the midfielder towards a club record goals tally – Lampard has achieved a shot accuracy rate of 63.5 per cent from 63 attempts this season, one shot every 44.3 minutes on the pitch;
- David Luiz has made more interceptions than any other Blues player this season with 122, as well as averaging at a squad-best rate of defensive contributions – one every 13.1 minutes according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Eden Hazard lies second to Juan Mata as Chelsea’s main creative force, making an attacking contribution (dribble, cross, shot on target or assist) on average once every 16.5 minutes, as well as joining an elite group of players to have made a pass in the opponent’s half once every 3 minutes or less on average.