LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01: Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea challenges Wayne Rooney of Manchester United during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on March 1, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
So I hear we have kind of a big game coming up this weekend, right? Chelsea vs. Manchester United, the two teams that have won the title since the last time Arsenal were good. I can't remember if that was in the Devonian or the Silurian, but hey, I'm not a geologist, so whatevers. Last season, Chelsea went into Old Trafford knowing that a win would bring them within reach of an improbable title. They promptly conceded within the first minute and eventually lost 2-1, leading to a rather anti-climactic final two weeks when United locked up their championship against Blackburn Rovers with a game to spare.
This trip isn't nearly as important. Yes, when the end of the season rolls around, the points all count the same, but this is the fifth match of the Premier League campaign, and nothing is do-or-die at this point. If Chelsea lose, they're down by five points, which is hardly insurmountable. If they win, they're up on United by one. If they draw... well, we'd be right back where we started, which is fine by me.
United, of course, have started the season in fine fashion, winning four of their first five games and drawing the other. This puts them at marked contrast with Chelsea, who have failed to impress under Andre Villas-Boas by only winning four of their first five games this year, drawing the other. Erm, wait a second... those are the same thing. Let's try again.
United, of course, have started the season in fine fashion, putting in brilliant performances against both Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers while doing just about enough against West Bromwich Albion, a much-weakened Tottenham Hotspur team, and failing to impress with their second string vs. Benfica. Chelsea, meanwhile, haven't hit those same giddy heights, but have been happy to grind out close wins. Whether or not that difference reflects some great gulf in quality between the two sides is, one supposes, more or less in the eye of the beholder.
Personally, I think that this United team is excellent in the attack with vulnerabilities in the back line. Injuries have hit the team hard - they're down Danny Welbeck, Rafael da Silva, Tom Cleverley and Nemanja Vidic, and have been without Rio Ferdinand for much of the campaign as well. Ferdinand is back for the champions, which could push the ludicrously impressive Phil Jones to right back or the midfield,but this is a defence which has somehow contrived to give up the most shots against in the Premier League.
Yes, it's been a phenomenally impressive start, with Wayne Rooney scoring more goals than Chelsea have managed so far this season by himself, but we had a similarly devastating beginning to the 2010/11 season and that did us approximately no good at all. No matter how good United's finishing is, it can't stay this good - scoring 47* goals a match just isn't sustainable for any side.
*Research isn't my strong point.
That's not to say that Manchester United aren't a better team than Chelsea, since a) they probably are and b) they're definitely favourites to win at home, because that's what being at home does. But there's a lot of hysteria about having to play the defending champions at Old Trafford, and I don't think it's entirely warranted. Chelsea probably aren't going to end up coming out of Sunday's match humiliated. They might even manage a result, even with both Michael Essien and Didier Drogba absent thanks to injuries.
Andre Villas-Boas will be gunning for the win, for the simple reason that scoring enough goals to win also makes getting a draw rather more straightforward. Just how he plans to do this, I'm not really sure. Trying to figure out what Sir Alex Ferguson has planned is rather beyond my capabilities, but certain things hold true, no matter the lineup, so let's focus on them here.
United's fullbacks will almost certainly be more vulnerable than their central defence. Patrice Evra hasn't had a good game in what now seems like forever, and as talented as Fabio da Silva, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling may be none of them will be relishing going up against Juan Mata on Chelsea's left flank. Jones and Smalling are still more comfortable as centre backs, and the partnership with Ferdinand should be solid enough. Chelsea have to hit the full backs hard.
Javier Hernandez is an excellent player, but he's almost incidental to the game. Chicharito is the one who'll kill finish sides off, the man who turns United dominance into goals. Most teams going up against Manchester United will be dominated either way, but Chelsea shouldn't be expecting to get blown off the park at Old Trafford. Cutting off Hernandez's supply is easier than trying to track him throughout the match.
The three players to focus on, then, are the two wingers and Wayne Rooney. Of that trio, Rooney is by far the most dangerous, but Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia can all cause Chelsea problems and will necessitate a strong defensive performance from the fullbacks - perhaps meaning Branislav Ivanovic will get some time ahead of Jose Bosingwa. Rooney, on the other hand, is undefendable at his best, especially when he drops between the lines. Essentially, Chelsea will need to deal with him by sticking John Obi Mikel on him and hoping for the best.
One of the major issues the Blues will face is the interaction between their right back and United's left winger. Ferguson has almost always focused on shutting down Ashley Cole on the left and allowed Ivanovic freedom on the right, since he's fairly useless going forward in open play. This means that the left winger is freed from his defensive obligations, making him more dangerous. Chelsea may be able to counter this possibility with Jose Bosingwa at right back - although that, of course, would leave them more defensively vulnerable.
In central midfield, United have a few options, but we should probably expect a fairly deep pairing featuring two of Anderson, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick. There are some other options too, but they're less plausible. If I were Ferguson, I'd pick Jones and Anderson, including the former in order to mitigate the physical workings of Ramires. If Carrick gets the nod over the 19-year-old, Chelsea's obvious response should be to start Raul Meireles and Ramires, using Meireles to hassle carrick and Ramires to both annoy Anderson and assist in any Rooney coverage Mikel needs.
However, I don't see Frank Lampard being benched for two straight games, so I'd guess he comes in for Meireles. It's not a move I particularly like, since Lampard isn't generally the best defender in the world, but Villas-Boas is smarter than me, so whatever. This, incidentally, is where I really miss Essien. A Ramires-Essien-Mikel midfield trio is about as creative as most of my jokes, but it would be perfect at disrupting United's centre here.
The plan of attack for Chelsea, then, should probably by to hold out against Rooney and United's wide players by establishing a solid defensive block, trying to move the ball out of defence through use of mobile centre backs (because the holding midfielder and fullbacks will be occupied) and then hitting their opposition in areas of relative weakness in central midfield and then fullback. They'll then probably need to score some goals. How they'll do that without fixing Fernando Torres or persuading Nicolas Anelka to play proper striker is a little bit beyond me, but those are our options, unless someone wants to do something crazy involving Romelu Lukaku.
For all of the* complains about Daniel Sturridge being too isolated out on the right flank, this might be the perfect time to use a self-sufficient, independent forward on that side of the pitch, mainly to pin back Evra and become a source of goals. When possession becomes less a given and more a hope, the need to have Sturridge completely integrated with team play is lessened, anyway.
It's difficult to know just how Villas-Boas is going to deal with these issues, and I'm sure Chelsea have come up with many more items to be addressed with their lineup. The most important selection dilemmas are the Lampard/Meireles battle in central midfield and then the centre/right forward position up front. I'm not sure how to resolve them, and in the case of the latter I'm not even sure that there is a reasonable resolution... but I might as well make some guesses.
Obviously, this doesn't address all of the tactical questions asked above (no lineup could), and so it's likely to be horrendously, totally wrong. It's also not really what I would do, if given the choice. It is a team, though, that can cause United some problems while absorbing plenty of punishment. I'm going to go for the optimistic 1-1 draw - along with a little note that my score predictions have been correct three times in a row.
We'll see you all on Sunday at 4:00 PM BST (11:00 AM EST) for the big match. It's going to be a tough one, but hopefully the team can step up and show their stuff.