Another week, another frustrating draw. In what is quickly becoming the standard result for José Mourinho’s side, Manchester United braved a 3,750 mile round trip to Rostov to return with yet another stalemate. It was, at least, a result that should be enough to see the Reds through to the Europa League quarter-final. An FA Cup tie at Chelsea on Monday represents another challenge again.
Thursday’s European tie was played out on a pitch described as “non-league” by the United manager. It was a surface that made it near impossible to play anything resembling decent football. United escaped with a vital away goal, making the Reds’ path to forward a little more straightforward, while Mourinho can hang is hat on few fresh injuries as another positive.
One of the few moments of genuinely quality on the night led to United’s opening goal in Rostov, with Marouane Fellaini’s chest control enabling the Belgian to pick out Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who slipped in a pass for Henrihk Mkhitaryan to score. Fellaini’s height was a clear focal point in Mourinho’s plan to keep the ball off the pitch for as long as possible.
In the end it was hardly a game for the neutral. United’s mission was to get in and out as painlessly as possible. Mission almost accomplished.
There is little time for Mourinho’s team to catch its collective breath though, as has been the case so frequently this season. Little over a fortnight ago a punishing marathon of two Europa League ties, an FA Cup fixture, and a trip to Wembley culminated in League Cup victory. Once again Mourinho’s side is in the midst of another four game stretch played over 10 brutal days.
The Reds face a shorter trip than last Thursday in meeting Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The prize is just as important though: a place in the FA Cup semi-final alongside Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Given that United fans have already enjoyed one successful journey to the home of English football, there is hope for another visit or two to to Wembley before the season ends. After all, the FA Cup represents a real chance to deliver tangible success.
In wait is a side truly at the peak of its powers. Chelsea lies top of the Premier League table having put last season’s ‘worst Premier League title defence ever’ behind the club. The Blues are now a full 10 points ahead of the competition, effectively giving Antonio Conte’s side an extended period of preparation for this tie. Indeed, Mourinho noted when the tie was drawn almost a month ago that “Chelsea can only think about that [the FA Cup] because they are champions and they have nothing else to fight for.” He may well be right.
Much of the credit for Chelsea’s successes this season can be handed to the role N’Golo Kante has played in the heart of midfield. The Frenchman has transferred to London the tenacity and tirelessness he employed during Leicester City’s title campaign a season ago. Chelsea has reaped the benefits. If United can extinguish the influence the holding midfielder plays there may be a path to victory on Monday night.
Of course, there are unhappy memories from United’s last visit to Chelsea. The Reds were embarrassed by Mourinho’s former employers in October, losing 4-0 in emphatic fashion. It is to Mourinho’s credit that his side has suffered just one defeat since that tie, but that reverse will no doubt stick in the Portuguese tactician’s mind.
The fixture pile up may have led some to believe Mourinho might play a weakened side on Monday in a bid to save his players for more pressing matters. It isn’t an approach that ever really slips into the manager’s thinking, with the Portuguese confirming that United cannot go into the FA Cup game “with a Nicky Butt team,” although the United squad travelled south without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial. Rooney and Martial miss the game through injury, with Rashford left at home because of an illness.
“We have three days and we have to travel,” Mourinho told MUTV. “We have to go to London. It’s really hard. We don’t have Zlatan, of course not, but we go with everything we have.
“We know this Europa League is very important for us, and the FA Cup is beautiful. We’ll try to manage it within our squad and get a good team to compete with them. Manchester United is Manchester United; it’s the winner of this competition. It’s not Chelsea’s fault we were given this Monday match. We’ll make changes, as we played on Thursday, but we cannot go to Chelsea with a [Reserve] team.”
Chelsea subs from: Begović, Zouma, Terry, Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek, Pedro, Fabregas, Batshuayi, Solanke
United subs from: Romero, Shaw, Darmian, Jones, Blind, Lingard, Young, Schweinsteiger
Mourinho opted to play a back three against Rostov on Thursday night, matching up with Russian outfit and enabling a more direct game. It is an approach unlikely to be repeated at Stamford Bridge. While Chelsea has employed a similar set up for much of the season, Mourinho’s side is far more comfortable playing four at the back. It means Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly, who missed the Europa League tie through suspension, will make a return to the team.
In goal David de Gea, who has seen shared minutes in cup competitions with Sergio Romero this season, is also likely to return. The Argentine has performed admirably when called upon, but de Gea is clearly the first choice between the sticks.
Yet, the major question that Mourinho must solve at the Bridge is who will replace Ibrahimovic up front, with the Swede suspended for the next three matches following an altercation with Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings. Ibrahimovic’s influence will be missed up front, not least because he is United’s leading scorer by a considerable distance. With Rashford, Martial, and Rooney also remaining in Manchester, Fellaini could be offered a chance up front at the Bridge.
Conte’s team has been given a week’s break before this tie given the club’s lack of participation in either European competition. The Italian will have little reason to make changes from the side that brought success against West Ham United last week.
Meanwhile, Mourinho’s outfit has an opportunity to prove how far it has come since that humbling defeat just under five months ago. Victory over the league leaders, however unlikely given the circumstances, would be a huge statement as the Reds head into the business end of the season. United has improved significantly since October and should make it a far more competitive affair on Monday, even without a handful of strikers.