Manchester United, in fifth, travel to 13th-placed Chelsea on Sunday, with Louis van Gaal’s side seeking to mount a serious challenge for the top four. It is a sentence few would have believed if mentioned in August. Yet, mediocrity has struck at both Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge this season, with neither set of supporters enjoying the football on offer for much of the campaign.
United and Chelsea represent the two most successful clubs in England over the last decade and, despite the relatively poor league positions, the fixture remains important. Van Gaal’s side is now just five points off fourth-placed Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger’s side participating in its traditional New Year collapse. With results improving, United could feasibly pip the north Londoners – or even Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur – to the final Champions League spot.
Chelsea, meanwhile, is yet to lose under interim manager Guus Hiddink and the side is two wins away from seventh place and a potential Europa League spot. Few thought that outcome possible when José Mourinho was sacked back in December.
United’s newfound confidence comes after the Reds’ midweek victory over Stoke City, which has set the benchmark for Van Gaal’s side this season. United played with a swagger that has rarely been seen at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Van Gaal’s side attacked with pace and conviction – the trio of Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney creating multiple chances, with Van Gaal’s side scoring three goals for the third time this year.
Indeed, victory came with the welcome return of attacking football at Old Trafford after growing discontent with Van Gaal’s management in recent weeks. Two good performances does not change the narrative this season, of course, while the consensus among United’s supporters remains that Van Gaal should leave at the end of the season. Yet, the Dutchman’s side has lost just once in 2016 and the chance of a positive end to the season is growing.
Chelsea, meanwhile, remains unbeaten under Hiddink, although his side has won only five of the 10 games played since the Dutchman’s return to Stamford Bridge. Yet, the team has also found a scoring touch having netted 21 times in those 10 games. Whatever the Blues’ progress Chelsea remains vulnerable and the team has dropped points against West Bromwich Albion and Watford since Hiddink’s return. Last weekend’s draw with the Hornets has left the Dutchman feeling pessimistic ahead of United’s. “We are getting on track a little bit, but I would like more victories instead of unbeaten draws,” Hiddink said, “
Another draw would represent a good result for the Blues on Sunday, while Van Gaal desperately needs to win to keep the pace with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top four. Van Gaal has not yet given up hope of winning the title despite United lying some 13 points off Leicester City before kick-off on Sunday.
“The competition is not yet finished, not for Manchester United and not for the other teams,” said the Dutchman. “We have the feeling [that we can win the title] because we are winning two times in a row with sparkling football, goals and clean sheets.”
While supporters admire Van Gaal’s optimism – the title is mathematically possible – the Dutchman’s side has some tricky fixtures before the business end of the season even begins. United take no guarantees into fixtures against Sunderland, City and Tottenham in the coming weeks, while Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford this month could prove pivotal. That fixture is sandwiched between two Europa League ties against FC Midtjylland, adding to United’s burden. Meanwhile, the Reds have won only once at Stamford Bridge since 2002 and must win to entertain any notion that title victory is possible.
That said, Van Gaal’s optimistic message is resonating with his players. Veteran midfielder Michael Carrick repeated the message that a title challenge is possible this week, whilst Morgan Schneiderlin and David De Gea have echoed the vice captain’s rallying cry.
“We need to keep this level up,” De Gea said. “We always have the confidence, but in the last couple of games we have scored three goals and I think it’s been really important to us, and given confidence to us to keep this run going.”
Chelsea’s leaky defence offers United cause for optimism ahead of Sunday’s game; the Blues’ conceded three goals against Everton in the side’s last Premier League fixture at Stamford Bridge. In many seasons gone by a draw secured at Chelsea would have been a positive result. This time Van Gaal needs both victory and a strong performance in West London.
Team news and line-ups
Subs from: Begovic, Zouma, Baba, Traore, Kenedy, Oscar, Loftus-Cheek
Subs from: Romero, Jones, Varela, McNair, Fellaini, Herrera, Pereira, Januzaj, Memphis, Keane
Van Gaal offered positive news on the injury front, with long-term absentees Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw progressing well. Mojo is close to fitness, while the club has set target dates for Valencia and Shaw’s return. Shaw has been included in the Red’s Europa League squad as an incentive. Meanwhile, Phil Jones trained on Friday and is expected to make the bench, although Bastian Schweinsteiger is out for the foreseeable future.
Van Gaal is unlikely to tinker with the side that so thoroughly dismantled Stoke on Tuesday, meaning the back four of Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson remains in place. Blind and Borthwick-Jackson impressed against Stoke, with the young full-back providing an assist for United’s opening goal. Borthwick-Jackson attack strongly down the left flank and was rarely troubled by Jonathan Walters.
In midfield Van Gaal’s only change could be to replace Marouane Fellaini with Morgan Schneiderlin although, in truth, the Belgian enjoyed one of his better games for the team against Stoke. However, Fellaini limped off late in the second half, while Cesc Fabregas’ attacking threat calls for the more disciplined Schneiderlin’s return. Carrick is likely to continue in a deeper role after enjoying an outstanding performance during the week. The England man is hitting form while offering a calm head in Schweinsteiger’s lengthy absence.
Further forward Van Gaal is unlikely to a change a front four that has started United’s past last two games. Jesse Lingard’s movement off-the-ball has brought the best out of Juan Mata in the number 10 position, with the Spaniard benefiting from a greater variety of attacking options against Stoke. Mata was involved in all three goals on Tuesday, although he is yet to be on the winning side in three attempts since leaving Stamford Bridge.
Wayne Rooney continues up front fresh from being voted United’s Player of the Month. The skipper has scored seven goals in his last eight games, while man-of-the-moment Anthony Martial continues on the left after another electric performance against Stoke.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Burt, G Beswick
Fourth official: C Pawson
Chelsea 1-2 United