Testing run-in begins as Chelsea come to Old Trafford
The phrase Manchester United “left to rue missed chances” has found its way into far too many match reports this season, and Thursday’s Europa League draw with Anderlecht was yet another installment in a long line of wasteful performances. The good news for José Mourinho is that his side has an opportunity to quickly make amends; the bad news is that it involves the visit to Old Trafford of table-topping Chelsea.
The manager chose to admonish all of his attackers after their collective profligacy meant that Leander Dendoncker’s header was an equaliser and not the late consolation it really should have been. “I have no better word than sloppy,” said a clearly exasperated Mourinho, with achingly familiarity. The manager has underachieved thus far in his first season, but there is little he can do about the kind of chances his players continue to let go begging.
"Despite a minor stumble a few weeks back, Chelsea remains odds on favourites to take the title, and the Londoners have certainly had the run over United this season."
In comparison to the limp performances against Everton and West Bromwich Albion, United played relatively well against Anderlecht, but missed chances and a late defensive lapse were annoyingly predictable. The result gives a slightly trickier complexion to the return leg at Old Trafford.
‘Tricky’ is an understatement when describing Sunday’s fixture against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. United has not beaten the London side since a 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge in 2012, where the Blues had two men sent off in a controversial encounter.
Despite a minor stumble a few weeks back, Chelsea remains odds on favourites to take the title, and the Londoners have certainly had the run over United this season. The 4-0 drubbing Chelsea handed United at Stamford Bridge in October was the last time Mourinho’s side tasted defeat in the league. At one stage, with the Reds stringing together results and performances around the New Year period, it seemed a turning point. Mourinho’s side has failed to build substantially on that initial improvement, and hardly laid a glove on Conte’s outfit when the two sides met again in the FA Cup.
The team’s third meeting of the campaign marks the beginning of an extremely tough run-in for United, with fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Arsenal still to come as Mourinho’s team tries to cling on to the coattails of the top four. Liverpool remain in sight, only six points ahead, but United’s record against other teams in the top six this season does not bode well for a high points return. The Reds’ 1-0 win over Spurs is the only victory over direct rivals in the league this campaign, so to predict the near flawless run-in required for United to finish in the top four seems hopeful at best.
After an uncertain start, Chelsea has been the outstanding team in this season’s Premier League. Led by the enigmatic Conte and his animated touchline persona, it must frustrate Mourinho that another coach has managed to get so much from a side that, the excellent N’Golo Kante aside, is largely the same as the one which downed tools early in Mourinho’s final season at the club. Eden Hazard, who cut a forlorn figure under the Portuguese, has returned to his scintillating best and Diego Costa looks about as settled as a man of his temperament could ever be.
The league leaders lack of European football means Conte’s team arrives at Old Trafford well rested and the Italian could well name an unchanged side from the one that overcame Bournemouth last week. Chelsea’s recent shock home defeat to Crystal Palace was the first indication in months that Chelsea’s journey to the title would be anything other than a canter. Yet, it is a dip in the road that the Blues seem to have overcome.
Tottenham’s continually impressive form may well linger in the back of Chelsea minds when the team steps out at Old Trafford, and if United, like Crystal Palace, can find an early goal then the mental fortitude of Conte’s men will be put to the test.
Mourinho’s injury worries have not yet dissipated, with Chris Smalling, Juan Mata and Phil Jones on the sidelines. Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young remain doubtful for Sunday’s fixture due to a lack of match fitness, which means the manager may be forced to field a similar side to the one that drew against Anderlecht.
Predictably, the focus on Thursday settled almost entirely on Paul Pogba’s second half miss that, although costly, should not take away from the Frenchman’s overall impressive performance. Pogba has shouldered an unfair amount of criticism this season and it is only right that his positive contributions receive the same level of attention. Where Pogba has struggled is in the biggest fixtures, and has been particularly poor in two outings against Chelsea. Sunday’s game is the perfect opportunity for Pogba, off the back of an improved performance, to demonstrate his ability to mix it with the best teams in the league.
United subs from: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Shaw, Darmian, Fellaini, Young, Martial, Rooney
Chelsea subs from: Begović, Zouma, Terry, Fàbregas, Loftus-Cheek, Willian, Batshuayi
In attack, Marcus Rashford was included in Mourinho’s criticism after Anderlecht and may feel harshly treated as he turned in an energetic display. The teenager forced the save that led to Mkhitaryan’s opener, and he looked a threat on the flank all evening.
By contrast, Anthony Martial’s second-half appearance did little to further his cause for a starting berth, despite being United’s best option on the left when in form. Martial looked set for a huge future in Manchester when he arrived, carrying last season’s dismal side to results on many occasions, but if Mourinho is successful in bringing in his summer targets then Martial’s position at the club may be far from assured. The manager clearly does not feel as though he can trust the 21-year-old on a regular basis, and that is an issue that Martial must solve if he is reclaim his place.
Mourinho has attempted to play down this fixture as just another game, but inside he must surely harbour a burning desire to get one over on his old club. United’s 4-0 humiliation in October, followed by a limp exit from the FA Cup, means that the Special One has suffered greatly at the hands of the team he helped haul out of irrelevance over a decade ago.
Those are memories that Mourinho will want to banish from his mind, and a victory on Sunday will go some way to doing just that.
Bobby Madley (Referee)
P Kirkup, G Beswick (Assistants)
A Marriner (Fourth official)
United 1-1 Chelsea