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 pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
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.
Fickleness and sentiment: two words tossed around aplenty in football. “Fans are fickle” is a favourite used by onlookers as a bizarre crutch to justify supporters’ sudden change of heart. Equally, pundits note that “there is no room for sentiment” in football. It’s an overused term that explains away the poor treatment of a formerly loved player or, perhaps, manager. José Mourinho might take note of both clichés on Sunday.
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. Read More
In keeping with the spirit of the season, Manchester United’s campaign is starting to resemble a pantomime, with Louis van Gaal playing the villain. The Dutchman remains at the helm despite overseeing a run of seven games without a victory – the team’s longest winless streak since January 1990. Read More
It is Louis van Gaal’s biggest challenge of the season: Saturday afternoon’s trip to Champions-elect Chelsea. If the revival in Manchester United’s fortunes over the past two months has been stark then perhaps the truest barometer of the Reds’ progress comes at Stamford Bridge. After all José Mourinho’s side is yet to lose at home in the Premier League this season and is the Premier League’s champion in all but name.
Yet, the narrative of this match has changed much in recent weeks. Where United might once have travelled with some trepidation, although never voiced, Van Gaal’s squad boarded the train south on Friday in buoyant mood. Six Premier League wins on the bounce makes United and not Chelsea the league’s form team. Add Chelsea’s middling recent performances into the mix, albeit downbeat matches that have not translated into poor results, and there are reasons for United’s manager to feel confident.
The match also represents a marker, not only of United’s progress, but the club’s trajectory overall. Results over the past six games cannot mask United’s fall from preeminence; the club will end the season without a trophy for a second campaign in succession.
Yet, Saturday’s result could add to a sense of momentum heading into another pivotal summer. Victory at Stamford Bridge would say much for United’s renewed status, not that Van Gaal is prone to lessen the scale of the challenge United faces on Saturday. Chelsea will win the Premier League, but results over the past two months demonstrate that United will likely mount a serious challenge to the Londoners next season.
“It is bigger than big,” said van Gaal on Friday. “Firstly, Manchester United has not given the best results in away games and, secondly, Chelsea do not lose so much at home. So it will be very difficult. Chelsea play at home but I think they will be satisfied with a draw. However, of course they want to beat Manchester United and we want to beat them.”
The fixture also brings together Mourinho and Van Gaal once again. Once colleagues, now competitors, the Dutchman finds much empathy with his former assistant, who could have been United’s manager, but for the dubious decision at boardroom to appoint David Moyes in 2013.
Between them the former Barcelona team-mates have won 40 trophies – a drive for silverware that has kept Van Gaal working into his sixties and seemingly as vigorously as ever.
“We live for these titles, we are doing it for that,” said Van Gaal of the pair’s essential simpatico. “That’s the only satisfaction – that you have a title. If you are second or third, you can still play Champions League, but it is the title that is more fixed for you.
“It comes with your name and that is why managers are fixated on titles. When you reach that goal, you are happy. To be involved with the game, to be involved with young people to reach the goal is another goal of mine. That’s why I am still a manager because I don’t have to work anymore.”
On the pitch United’s challenge comes both in Chelsea’s imperious home record and a spate of injuries that robs the side of four key players. Injuries to Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo will force the first major change in personnel in four games – and potentially an alteration to the successful shape Van Gaal has fashioned in recent weeks. It is a cruel blow at an inopportune moment.
With Carrick and Blind out, Luke Shaw is likely to come into a back-four that will also feature one of Tyler Blackett or Patrick McNair. In central midfield Van Gaal has toyed with the idea of dropping Wayne Rooney into a holding role, although Ander Herrera possesses the kind of game intelligence that is highly attractive in Carrick’s absence.
Mata will face his old club for the first time at Stamford Bridge and may well be joined in midfield by Angel Di Maria, United’s £60 million Argentine who has been out of the side in recent weeks.
“It cannot be worse because it’s two players in the left central defensive positions, and Jonny Evans is still suspended,” added Van Gaal.
“Blind and Carrick play in the holding position in midfield, so I have to change my line-up a lot against Chelsea. They are all from the game against Manchester City. Blind has played on because he always wants to play on, but the tackle from Kompany was of course the reason. Jones, I took him off the pitch already because he injured himself in the second half. Rojo, he was complaining after the match, and Carrick was also off. We had a big hope that Blind and Jones could reach this game but they could not.”
Not that Chelsea Coach Mourinho holds any sympathy for United; nor for opponents left behind in the west London club’s wake this season. Victory over United would leave Chelsea 11 points ahead of Saturday’s visitors, while there is already a seven point cushion to Arsenal in second place. For the first time in five years it is Chelsea’s blue that will adorn the Premier League trophy in May.
“Their squad is amazing, in numbers, players, experience, solutions,” said Mourinho on Friday. “Every week in my office we put up on the big screen the squad and the options our opponents will have. When I looked this week, for the first time I realised what they have. It’s amazing.”
While Mourinho’s squad is smaller it is yet to face the plethora of injury problems that cursed United in the autumn – and might have derailed a successful Chelsea campaign. The Portuguese is, however, without top scorer Diego Costa on Saturday. The Spaniard is out with yet another hamstring injury, while Loïc Rémy faces a late test on a calf strain/ Didier Drogba is likely to start and 17-year-old Dominic Solanke has been called up as an emergency alternative on the bench.
“I know the ideal scenario for people in this country would be for the Premier League to be more like the Championship, with four teams separated by a couple of points and nobody knowing who is going to be promoted or even in the play-offs,” said Mourinho. “But, since day one, we have been top. We are boring.”
Boring is an adjective that can no longer be applied to United. The Reds picked up plenty of post-Christmas points, but in a style that was roundly critised until the past six matches. Now, with Van Gaal’s side emphatically dispatching Manchester City, to add to victories over Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, momentum and a sense of excitement are reunited at Old Trafford.
It has been two years in the making. It will take another busy summer for United to catch up with Mourniho’s side, but the momentum is certainly with Van Gaal’s camp. Saturday will go a long way to testing just how far his side has come.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta; Ramires, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Hazard; Drogba
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Shaw; Herrera; Mata, Fellaini, Di Maria, Young; Rooney
Chelsea: Cech, Filipe, Zouma, Oscar, Loftus-Cheek, Mikel, Cuadrado, Solanke, Rémy
United: Valdes, Rafael, Blackett, Thorpe, Januzaj, Lingard, Perreira, Wilson, Falcao, Van Persie
Chelsea 48 – Draw 51 – United 72
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Long, D England
Fourth Official: C Pawson
Chelsea 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney to score first in 1-1 draw @ 35/1
Running total: £10.50 up!
Manchester United’s six-game winning streak – in the Premier League at least – is remarkable for many reasons. Not least because this is now a United side high on belief, quick in the pass and effortlessly creative – three qualities that Louis van Gaal’s side has infrequently demonstrated this season. And yet, save for defeat against Arsenal in the FA Cup, United’s winning streak has ushered in a bold new era at United. Sunday’s victory over Manchester City emphasised United’s metamorphosis; next weekend’s trip to Chelsea could well confirm the club’s rebirth.
City’s defeat is a case in point. It is not just that Van Gaal’s side dominated – City’s two Sergio Agüero goals flattered the visitors – but that United secured three points with such effortless grace. With more clinical finishing the home side could have bettered the six goals City infamously scored at Old Trafford in October 2011. Van Gaal’s side not only wanted victory more, but backed up desire with outstanding execution.
The Blues dished out humiliating defeat to United too often in recent seasons. Not least four Premier League victories in a row before Sunday and an aggregated scoreline in that period of 10 goals to two. That’s to say little of the aforementioned six scored against 10-man United four years ago.
This period of domination has followed City’s vast expenditure in the transfer market – one that has also fuelled two Premier League titles over the past three seasons. By contrast United’s decline was slow and then very quick – first starved of funds under the Glazer family’s ownership and then decimated by David Moyes ineptitude. Game after what seemed to be too many games City’s midfield bullied a meek United offering.
There was none of that on Sunday though, with United out-passing, thinking and working City. This was both a tactical masterclass by Van Gaal and an expression of a work-ethic that always has supporters on their feet.
In fact, just as City seemed to put aside recent poor form to start brightly, United once again demonstrated the strength of mental fortitude that Moyes so acutely destroyed and Van Gaal has rebuilt. After nine minutes the Blues were on top, but it says much that City never had it so good again. Save for Agüero’s late goal, Van Gaal’s side remained dominant to the last.
Little wonder Van Gaal was delighted with victory – an emphatic result and a performance that thoroughly vindicates the Dutchman’s methods. Special praise too for the strength of character to come back from Agüero’s early strike.
“We have showed that often,” said Van Gaal on United’s recovery. “I have more than once given compliments to my players about that because, in all the matches, we are going until the end with a great spirit and we have shown that against City.
“We didn’t start so well, Manchester City had the better start, but then we came back into the game because of the assist of David De Gea, more or less, for the first goal for Ashley Young. Then we gained confidence and we performed our game-plan much more. In the second half, we played very well with a lot of pace in our game. I was very pleased with the second half.”
Technically the home side was far superior too. While Juan Mata and Ander Herrera controlled the game with a nuanced range of passing from the right, it was Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini that earned praise for taking full advantage of City’s weaknesses down United’s left. Michael Carrick was again outstanding as United’s deep-lying creative instigator.
Young’s pace and direct running seemingly compliment the out-ball offered by Fellaini. The Belgian won nine headers on Sunday, with United deploying the long-ball 15 per cent of the time – a ratio that is high in comparison to other Champions League chasing sides. Yet, in contrast to the aimless long-balls that too often creeped into United’s game during the winter, this time the Reds exploited City’s lack of height at full-back and failure to adequately cover the channels.
“Ashley was Man of the Match and I think that was right,” confirmed Van Gaal in the aftermath. “If I had to choose, I would have chosen him. Also Fellaini is very important in our game-plan and I’m very pleased that he plays for Manchester United and no-one else.”
The victory leaves United four points ahead of City with just six games to play and 11 beyond Liverpool. Champions League football next season is almost guaranteed, although United will benefit much from finishing ahead of City, Arsenal or both to avoid an early-season play-off next August. Second or third would also earn United a healthier share of England’s media pool from European games – an incentive for the bean counters as much as the ego.
Momentum also counts for much. United has it, of course, although games against Chelsea, Everton, Crystal Palace and Arsenal offer no guarantee of points. After all, three of those games come away from the safety of Old Trafford, where United has gained 43 of 65 points this season.
The first of that sequence is against Chelsea next weekend. Indeed, United’s trip to Stanford Bridge is perhaps the truest barometer of progression. The Reds’ improvement in the past two months under Van Gaal has been dramatic, but the Londoners are seven points clear for a reason and superbly effective at home. José Mourniho’s side is yet to lose at Stamford Bridge in the league this season and boasts both the best home record and best home defensive record.
Van Gaal’s team is also unlikely to enjoy the bulk of possession next Saturday – a stat recorded at more than 55 per cent against City – nor control midfield so easily. After all, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic advance a formidable pairing, especially at home. United will, however, benefit from Diego Costa’s absence, while understudy Loïc Remy is also doubtful with injury.
In the big picture Saturday’s game may count for little. Few believe Chelsea will lose the title now, nor that Liverpool will make up the 12 points required on United over the next six games. Yet, there is that momentum thing again. Victory at Stamford Bridge might just be a season-defining statement ahead of what is likely to be another busy transfer window.
Then there is the small matter of supporters’ pride. Reds have enjoyed just two victories at Stamford Bridge in the past decade. With one demon slain last Sunday, United’s bête noire of the Premier League era lies in wait. Van Gaal will have little doubt that United’s fans are owed a result in the capital.
“I am very pleased for the fans of course, because they have supported us when the results were not so good and now they are very good,” concluded Van Gaal on Sunday. “I’m very happy for the fans that they can walk through the streets without being embarrassed! They can go on the streets, hat up, and they can say now ‘we are, this year, the better team’.”
United’s performance next weekend may well add to that feeling.
The celebration was old school – Manchester United players piling on goalscorer Robin van Persie after the Dutchman struck home a 94th minute equaliser at Old Trafford on Sunday. Fans, players and manager left elated with the home sides draw against league leaders Chelsea. No more – probably no less – than the Reds deserved for an enterprising performance.
It is, though, easy to be carried away in the moment. After all, every high under David Moyes last season proved to be as transient as the Scotsman with lows assuredly following every victory. It is with a sense of perspective that United supporters greet Sunday’s result; in the narrative of more than a season of disappointments a draw with Chelsea, achieved moments from defeat, feels like a great leap forward.
This, however, was not a great United performance – not in the context of the last 25 years. It is why Louis van Gaal’s mission, above anything else, is to ensure that United moves forward with each result; to demand more from his squad rather than accept the populist platitudes associated with Sunday’s drama. Unlike the Scotsman, Van Gaal will lose nothing in translation from outsider to United manager – he is surely every bit the part.
Little surprise that Van Gaal should, in the aftermath, press home his desire for victory. No point gained for the veteran coach, but two lost given United’s superior possession and greater number of chances created.
“I’ve said to the players we could have won but we didn’t and that’s our fault,” said the Dutchman on Sunday.
“When you can do that against the best team in this league at this moment it is a good sign. But I’m not pleased as I still have the feeling we could have won and that we don’t take our opportunities at the moment. But we kept together and I think we deserved it. The most pleasing thing is we are showing again we are believing in making a goal in spite of the result being bad. At 1-0 behind, it is fantastic that the players are running until the 90th minute to equalise or win.”
It is a sentiment that demands a positive performance is translated into consistent results. After all, away from the elation of Van Persie’s late goal, the dispassionate view holds that United requires around 60 more points this season from 29 games to qualify for the Champions League. That is almost double the points averaged achieved to date. Or in other words, United can afford six draws and five defeats with 18 victories to enjoy a place among Europe’s elite next season. No small feat given this season’s form, but a manageable one for Van Gaal’s collection of attacking riches all the same.
There is another essential truth: that while United is yet to fully blossom this season, the trajectory feels right. The Reds’ 13 points from nine games is one less than Moyes earned over the same period – with a more friendly fixture list to boot – but few doubt that Van Gaal’s side is now on an upward course. It is also an analysis that is bolstered by an obvious truth: Moyes took Sir Alex Ferguson’s title winning side and obliterated its confidence and form, while Van Gaal is rebuilding from the ruins. Only the most myopic fail see United’s progress.
Much of this is an article of faith though. Objectively the Dutchman should face greater criticism this season. United’s results still place the club firmly in mid-table, with no guarantees that the minimum goal of Champions League qualification will be achieved. Yet, just as Van Gaal chooses to pour cold water on a joyous last-minute equaliser, so United fans seem willing to take the Dutchman’s record at face value. He can fail, for now at least.
There are significant questions though. Despite scoring Van Persie was often peripheral, making just 13 passes in a largely quiet game. Even Angel Di Maria struggled to reach previous levels of performance, although the Argentinian still created four chances. More worrying still was Juan Mata’s inability to influence a major game – it has become a frustrating pattern from a player so amply talented.
Elsewhere Van Gaal will enjoy the greater structure in his side’s defensive performance. Both Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw were disciplined, while supporting the attack, and Chris Smalling enjoyed his best game in a United shirt for some months. Only Marcos Rojo betrayed some of the old nerves in gifting Chelsea two chances.
Then there is Marouane Fellaini, with a performance that drew positive reviews. The Belgian was more mobile than at any point during his tenure in Manchester, while making three key tackles and distributing the ball soundly, if over-safely. The former Evertonian will never become a technician of the sort expected at Old Trafford, but he confidence will swell from the momentum gained over the past two matches.
Indeed, this new impetus is a watchword for the team overall. After all, Van Gaal’s side is undefeated since capitulating so embarrassingly against Leicester City. While performances have rarely peaked in the interim, momentum is so ephemeral that is must be captured at every turn. It is a sentiment well understood by United’s players.
“A point that wasn’t much at half time was celebrated and deserved at the end of the game, although is not good enough to remain on the top of the table,” added Mata on his blog. “I’m sure that we will get better and better and we will climb to the main spots, where United deserves to be.”
This is also a statement of confidence that United fans are slowly coming to believe. Last minute goals have that effect. And while Van Gaal is not without his critics, and he faces significant challenges to restore United to preeminence, there is little doubt that more performances like Sunday’s will win over the terraces. More to the point, performances of a similar ilk against Manchester City, Arsenal and Crystal Palace in the month to come will push the Reds towards European qualification. It’s the minimum acceptable performance in truth.
Untied gained pride from Van Persie’s emotional late equaliser. It is not emotion that wins titles though. Points do – and they are now the only goal. It is a truth Van Gaal understands very well.
It has been billed as the master versus the pupil; Louis van Gaal against José Mourinho. More than 15 years since they worked together at Barcelona the pair reunites as Manchester United and Chelsea meet on Sunday. Time has taken each on a different path, but somehow inevitably to Old Trafford. After all, the Portuguese coach was widely believed to be desperate to take the United job before David Moyes, inexplicably, was anointed by Sir Alex Ferguson last summer.
Moyes failed and in his stead Van Gaal is picking up the pieces of a disastrous season under the Scot. United’s squad has been blessed with an influx of £150 million worth of new talent, but the club’s stock has fallen such that the Reds start the fixture 10 Premier League points behind Chelsea. It is not often in the past decade that Chelsea has arrived at Old Trafford favourites, but the west Londoners do so and some.
Van Gaal’s side has rarely found the balance between attacking riches and defensive inexperience this season. Not least because of an injury list that has stretched, at times, to a full 10 players. That burden is easing, although the manner in which United’s forwards misfired at the Hawthorns last weekend, while the Dutchman’s back-four found itself all too often out of shape, is concerning. More than three months into the job, Van Gaal has much to do.
The contrast with Mourinho’s side is stark, of course, with Chelsea unbeaten and seemingly bounding towards the Premier League title even at this early stage of the campaign. Yet, while Chelsea leaps ahead on the pitch, Van Gaal is unwilling to be drawn into a personal battle with his former assistant – nor the ‘mind games’ seemingly the obsession of the fourth estate.
“I don’t know him as a manager because I am never there,” said the 62-year-old.
“I know him as a person and as my assistant manager. Maybe you know that I am always a controversial person and a lot of media has written about that. I am a little bit iron, an iron shield. Everyone can write or speak about me and I cannot change that. It took a long time for me to understand that but I cannot change what you are writing about me. So I have learned not to react and to believe in myself, my players and staff.
“When did I learn this? Since coming to England! Every human being reacts in his own way to what is said and you have to ask him why he reacts like he does, not me. We hardly speak to each other, only sometimes on SMS. When we see each other, we feel the warmth between us and our families, which is nice.”
Sunday is a test both of the Dutchman’s progress at United and the gap United must bridge more than any personal duel. In truth the Reds are some distance behind the country’s best, although on an upward trajectory that has kept criticism of a stuttering start to the season to a minimum.
The easing injury burden helps, especially with key players Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria fit to face the Blues. Michael Carrick could make the bench, while Wayne Rooney serves the final game of a three match suspension.
“Ander was already fit for the last game and, with Di Maria, I said after the match that normally it [the injury] should not be so heavy and it’s not heavy,” said van Gaal on Friday.
“So he has trained. It was only the first day that he didn’t train so he has trained from Thursday, no problem. I’m sorry to say no other players are returning. Even, for example, I let Michael Carrick play this evening in London for the reserves because I believe that he needs that. He needs to play matches, especially when you are five months injured. He told me it was his first appearance in the second team. Antonio Valencia and Jonny Evans are not fit enough.”
Mourinho is without injured striker Loic Remy and midfielder John Obi Mikel, while Cesar Azpilicueta is suspended after being sent off against Crystal Palace last weekend. The Chelsea coach has already declared Diego Costa injured, although few in Van Gaal’s camp will be surprised if the Brazilian-Spaniard makes the Chelsea team. German midfielder Andre Schürle could start up front if Costa cannot start.
“If Diego is ready to play, he plays. I still don’t know who is available. Normally two days before the game I know the team, I have no doubts, everything is clear in my brain,” said Mourinho.
“Man United are in a fantastic position. You are in a difficult position when you don’t have the funds to be behind the rebuilding of a team. When you have the funds you have to buy well and coach them well, and I know Louis is capable of buying and coaching them well so they are fine. But we are very confident about ourselves.”
Mourinho, too, is keen to play down talk of personal rivalry, although the thought-experiment abounds of what might have been if United had appointed the Portuguese to the job he truly wanted last summer.
“I’m not playing against Louis on Sunday, Chelsea are playing against United. During the match I have no time – and he has no time – to look around and see who the opposition manager is,” insists Mourinho.
“Before the match and after the match he is one of my big friends in football and I will always be happy to see him. I’ve never hidden what I feel about him. As a young coach to be working four consecutive years at a club like Barcelona – one with Mr Robson and three with Louis – was very important.”
On Sunday, however, it is the pupil who remains favourite to take the spoils.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Felipe; Matic, Fabregas; Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Costa
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Smalling, Janko, Fletcher, Carrick, Pereira, Fellaini, Anderson, Januzaj, Wilson
Chelsea: Cech, Zouma, Aké, Drogba, Salah, Ramires, Christensen, Boga, Baker, Solanke, Drogba
United 70 – Draw 50 – Chelsea 48
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: G Beswick, D Cann
Fourth Official: C Foy
United 0-1 Chelsea
£1 bet club
Chelsea to win 1-0 and Costa to score @ 20/1
Running total: £(-)9