Rarely, over the past decade, can Manchester United have been such outsiders for a trip to Stamford Bridge. True, Chelsea’s financial doping has bridged the chasm in size between the clubs since Roman Abramovich acquired the west Londoners in 2004, but rare indeed have the Reds been at such a comparatively low ebb. Victory over Swansea City last weekend has bought a little time, but with Chelsea slowly finding something close to championship form, few will back United to achieve a positive result. Indeed, odds of 4-1 or longer can be found on a win for the visitors. It can’t have been seen often, if ever.
Still, this is only a measure of United’s regression this season, with the Reds having slipped to six league defeats under David Moyes. The Reds head into Sunday’s match nine points behind Chelsea and 11 behind leaders Arsenal, but perhaps more significantly, six behind Liverpool as of Saturday evening. Defeat at Stamford Bridge might just be fatal to Moyes’ ambition of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
By contrast José Mourinho has brought a little stability to a Chelsea squad that is still desperately short both in central midfield and up front. Despite an inconsistent start to the new campaign the west Londoners’ have remained in contention this season. Mourinho’s outfit might not be favourites to take the Premier League, but now just two points adrift of Arsenal, Chelsea could yet secure the Portuguese manager’s third English title.
Meanwhile, the visitors seek to build on last weekend’s victory. With Sunday’s game rapidly followed by the Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland, and then matches against Cardiff City and Stoke City, Moyes believes that the Reds face a pivotal few days.
“There’s a chance it could set up a really good 10 days,” said Moyes on Friday.
“We won against Swansea, we’ve got a cup tie on Wednesday and could find it’s an important 10 days. Going to Chelsea is a big game and I’m looking forward to it.
“I’m more keen on winning the next game and the longer it goes, the more I’ll be able to start thinking about further down the line. But I’m always thinking about the top and not anything else.
“This is a big game for us to hang in there and we have to try to pick up points. There are a lot of games still to play. The recent league form has not been that bad and we should not have lost against Tottenham.”
Still, Moyes has never led a team to victory at Stamford Bridge, while Mourinho is yet to lose a home league match with the Blues. Indeed, the Scot’s record against leading clubs is as pitiful as Mourinho’s is impressive. Something might give, but on the surface it appears unlikely. Not least because Chelsea’s form has kicked into gear since defeat to Stoke in early December.
“Chelsea are improving and have started to find a balance with their forward players,” adds Moyes.
“They’ve got some really talented players like Oscar and Eden Hazard behind the striker they choose to play. They have got good players and a talented team.
“Chelsea have shown over the years they’re strong at Stamford Bridge and we need to go there and make sure we’re hard to play against. We need to make it a difficult day for Chelsea like they made it a difficult day for us at Old Trafford.
“The team here has been used to big games over the years and I don’t think I see this one any differently. It was a tight game at Old Trafford at the start of the season and there is a good chance it could be much the same. Jose has a great record at Stamford Bridge, so we need to try to change that.”
If Moyes side is to secure something from the trip south then it will do so without strikers Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie. The Scouser has returned from a week’s recuperation in Egypt, while van Persie has been missing since mid-December with a thigh problem. Rooney could return for United’s Capital One Cup match in midweek, although the Dutchman is unlikely to feature for another fortnight at best.
“Wayne’s come back, he’s fresh but he’s not ready for Chelsea,” said Moyes.
“He’s training, he’s on the grass, doing some running and looking quite good. He’s had a break, done a lot of strengthening work around his groin and hopefully enjoyed a few days in the sunshine as well. Hopefully he’ll benefit from it, but not for this game.
“I don’t want to put a date on it just now as I don’t want to say he’ll be fit for whatever game and then I find he’s not, but we’ve just got to take it bit by bit. I’ve watched him running today; he looks well and is in really good condition.”
“I’m hoping Robin has a good chance of training at the start of next week, so if I can get him back out on the grass and back with us, it’ll be a great boost for us all. He’s a really important player, but he’s getting closer now.”
Fabio da Silva serves the last of a three match suspension, while Jonny Evans faces a race to be fit in time. Chris Smalling will feature in central defence if the Irishman is unfit. Nani and Ashley Young are both out.
Meanwhile, Mourinho is unlikely to start £21 million winter acquisition Nemanja Matic, although Frank Lampard could return from a calf problem to anchor Chelsea’s midfield. Defender Branislav Ivanovic is out with a knee injury, while the Portuguese manager will chose between Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o in attack.
Whatever the line-up, Mourinho’s record against United in London is near impeccable, although the Reds secured a 3-2 victory against nine-man Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. It was one of 30 wins at Chelsea’s home down the years. The odds – correctly it would seem – rank number 31 as a long-shot.
Chelsea v Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 4pm, 19 January 2014
Chelsea (4-2-31): Cech; Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Cole; Luiz, Lampard; Ramires, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Schwarzer, Hilario, Eto’o, Mikel, Willian, Schurrle, Mata, Essien, Ba, Kalas, Matic
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Rafaek, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher, Januzaj; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Kagawa, Zaha, Giggs, Hernández
Chelsea 47 Draw 50 United 72
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Ledger
Fourth Official: L Probert