Manchester United heads to London this weekend seeking to overturn a decade-long winless streak at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. Although Sir Alex Ferguson’s men comfortably beat the Londoners in the Champions League last season, United hasn’t emerged victorious over Chelsea on the road, domestically, since 2001. With Manchester City moving three points ahead in the Premier League title race on Saturday night, Ferguson is desperate to turn the series of poor results around.
The Scot will have no better chance, with Ferguson welcoming back a quartet of injured stars into the United squad. While Wayne Rooney makes his expected comeback, wingers Nani and Ashley Young provide welcome, if surprising, additions to the United party travelling south.
Not before time, supporters might add, with the Reds facing a tough run of games before the spring. United’s visit to Chelsea is followed by games with Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and the double-header against Ajax in the coming weeks.
“We’ve done very well away from home this season and we need to be good from now on,” Ferguson told Inside United.
“We’ve got some really important away games in the run-in – Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City. They’re going to be crucial games. Games at Chelsea in the last few years have been tough and we’ve had terrible luck there which has caused us disappointing results. The players know what they need to do. They know their responsibilities and the standard and expectation at the club, and they have to carry those things with them when they go into games.”
Injuries have provided a consistent backdrop to the season, with up to 11 stars sat out of matches in recent weeks. Indeed, long-term casualties Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić will not play again this season, but Ferguson is close to bringing midfielder Tom Cleverley back into the fold.
But it is the defensive unit that the Scot will be most satisfied with. While Fábio da Silva remains on the sidelines, brother Rafael will compete with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones for a slot at right-back in Ferguson’s side. Indeed, with Rio Ferdinand fit, Ferguson can boast more defensive options than at almost any point this season.
“We’re a bit better in terms of injuries,” Ferguson confirmed on Friday.
“We hope Wayne Rooney, Nani, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young will all be in the squad. It’s more likely Tom will play against Chelsea Reserves on Monday, but he’ll travel. Rooney and Nani have trained for the last two days.
“When Ashley got his injury at Fulham it was just at a point when his game was starting to shade a little bit because his early form was fantastic and we were really pleased with him. But there was just a couple of games before his injury when it looked as if we were ready to give him a break anyway. It was an enforced one and he is really fresh now. His training performances for the last two weeks have been really good.
“It is good to have players back because we have, in fairness to the players who have been carrying the burden of limited resources, done fantastically well. The only pressure when you get your full squad is on me picking the team now. That is the biggest pressure when you get them all back, who do you play and who do you leave out? It is not going to be easy.”
Much criticised goalkeeper David de Gea is likely to return between the posts after overcoming a heavy cold. Dane Anders Lindegaard is set to miss six weeks after turning his ankle in training, meaning an extended run in the side for young Spaniard de Gea. And Ferguson this week hit back at critics of the 21-year-old stopper, who was singled-out by some pundits for his part in Liverpool’s opening goal last weekend.
“When you make a mistake at United, it is highlighted and can be exaggerated a little bit,” said Ferguson.
“They are mistakes and he wants to address it himself. He will do so through maturity and the understanding of the English game. That is not easy. It is harder when you are replacing Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel. They are probably two of the greatest goalkeepers in European football over the last 40 years. I found it difficult to replace them. That’s why we went for a young replacement, who would develop and mature into the position because the potential is there.”
For the second time in a week United’s game will be played amid the backdrop of racism. United, and especially Patrice Evra, faced a partizan Anfield crowd in the FA Cup last weekend following Luis Suárez’ racial abuse of the United defender. Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge, much of the pre-match talk has centered on John Terry, the Chelsea captain now stripped of a similar honour with England. Terry will face a July court date after being accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.
However, with Terry still on the sidelines through injury, Anton’s brother Rio will not have to face the dubious prospect of shaking Terry’s hand pre-match – a diplomatic incident few bar those in the fourth estate would enjoy. Terry’s absence almost certainly means a début for England defender Gary Cahill, signed from Bolton Wanderers for £7 million during the winter transfer window.
Left-back Ashley Cole also misses out after being dismissed against Swansea in midweek, while Didier Drogba is still away at the Africa Cup of Nations. Manager Jose Villas-Boas will choose between Frank Lampard and the returning Michael Essien in midfield.
Despite the high-profile absentees Chelsea has history on side for this particular fixture. The Londoners are unbeaten in the last nine home league games against United, since a 3-0 defeat nearly ten years ago. Although Ferguson’s side has rarely enjoyed the rub of the green in that time, the Scot’s side has scored only three times in the past eight matches at Stamford Bridge.
United did, of course, emerge victorious in last season’s Champions League quarter-final, with Rooney scoring the only goal of the match.
However, Ferguson’s side boasts the best away record of any top-flight side – a remarkable turnaround from last season’s tortuous form on the road. And in Antonio Valencia Ferguson will also call on the league’s most in-form player. The Ecuadorian winger has provided nine assists in as many games.
Yet, it will still take a significant improvement in United’s form to close the gap on City this weekend. Following last weekend’s FA Cup loss to Liverpool, United beat Stoke City in midweek. That may have been a routine victory on paper, but the 2-0 win came after the Reds’ managed just two strikes on target – both penalties.
Chelsea verus Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 5 February 2012, 4pm.
Chelsea: (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Bosingwa; Romeu, Meireles, Lampard; Mata, Torres, Sturridge. Subs from: Turnbull, Essien, Malouda, Ferreira, Piazon, Lukaku.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Nani; Rooney, Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Kuszazck, Rafael, Jones, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.
- Chelsea could only take a point away from the side’s last Premier League game against Swansea City. Jose Bosingwa’s shot was going off target before Joe Allen deflected it in for Chelsea to equalise;
- Juan Mata covered the most ground for Chelsea in that game with 6.58 miles
- Bosingwa has won 72 per cent of tackles attempted this season, has made 44 interceptions, and delivered 47 crosses, while making three assists;
- Chelsea striker Fernando Torres may be struggling in front of goal, but his work rate is paying dividends for the team. The striker has attempted 38 tackles so far this season, the seventh highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- United scored two penalties to beat Stoke 2-0 on Tuesday night, with Michael Carrick coveringt he most ground – 6.65 miles – for the Reds in the game;
- Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov each scored their seventh goals of the season from the spot after fouls on Ji Sung Park and Valencia;
- Berbatov’s goals have come from 14 attempts at goal, while Hernandez’ have come from 27 attempts;
- Park covered 6.36 miles in the game, behind only top runner Michael Carrick. Park has two goals and three assists to his name this season, and has also completed a pass in his opponent’s half every three minutes 40 seconds.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: D Cann, M McDonough
Fourth Official: P Dowd