Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United will attempt to storm Stamford Bridge this Sunday evening and escape unscathed with the valuable loot of three Premier League points at this crucial business end of the campaign. However, standing in their way is a new commander in chief at the helm in west London, who has an expensively-assembled arsenal at his disposal to add a new legacy of success for the Blues.
Image Copyright – Steve Haag Sports
Thomas Tuchel, who is renowned across Europe for his tactical knowledge and ingenuity, will now take charge of Chelsea in his first encounter against the old enemy, with whom many battles have been shared that resulted into Premier League classics, or more importantly, decided the destination of the coveted Premier League crown.
One thing’s for sure, we’re set for a humdinger! We will be entertained and there will be fireworks when the Reds and Blues collide for another showdown.
English Premier League | Sunday 28 February | Stamford Bridge | 18:30
To Win Match
Manchester United 24/10
Chelsea boss Tuchel will encounter his most challenging spell in the coming weeks with Liverpool, Everton and Leeds United on the horizon as well as their blockbuster two-legged tie against Atletico Madrid. The German tactician will look to prove his metal and denounce any critics that claim he can’t replicate his successes from Germany and France in the most competitive league in the world.
For this clash against Manchester United, Tuchel has had the advantage of facing Solskjaer’s Red Devils twice earlier this season in the UEFA Champions League group stages with Paris Saint-Germain, losing 2-1 in Paris, but then came up trumps by winning 3-1 at Old Trafford when the pressure was on and when it mattered most.
Under the current regime, there’s been many changes compared to Frank Lampard’s setup with a clear blueprint forming of how we view Tuchel’s “German-engineered” football philosophy unfolding in front of our very eyes. Chelsea is yet to find their best XI but, it’s still early days under their new boss. In six Premier League games, Chelsea are unbeaten, having won four games and drawn twice, impressively keeping four clean sheets in the process.
There’s been many personnel changes to suit the newly-implemented systems which are preferred by Tuchel and his staff. Marcos Alonso has been getting the nod ahead of £50 million signing Ben Chilwell which raised a few eyebrows at first, largely because Alonso is lethal and potent in the attacking sense, dominates the play in the final third but, but is not adept enough to defend in one-versus-one situations.
Reece James had been one of the players of the season during the first round of games, but again Tuchel opted for ultra-attacking players in that area by choosing Callum Hudson-Odoi instead. Alonso and Hudson-Odoi have been the go-to players that flank a back-three of Antonio Rudiger, Thiago Silva and most interestingly club captain Cesar Azpilicueta.
With “Azpi” and Rudiger returning to the forefront, Kurt Zouma, who I personally rate very highly, has seen his playing time cut and has only featured when Thiago Silva has been unavailable with a thigh muscle strain.
Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic have regularly played in midfield together, however, Tuchel heaped praise and compliments when speaking about World Cup winner N’Golo Kante following his stellar display at Southampton – a player he always admired and admittedly tried to sign at his previous club.
Up front, there’s a multitude of talent to choose from between Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz.
The physiotherapists at Cobham Training Centre will be sweating on the fitness of Thiago Silva to be full strength for battle on Sunday. The Brazilian was left out of Chelsea’s matchday squad against Atletico Madrid in midweek.
Manchester United were on top of the log when Tuchel was appointed at Chelsea six weeks ago. Since then, the Red Devils have lost nine points from their following six games and now find themselves trailing leaders Manchester City, who have won 13 straight Premier League games, by 10 points.
United only have themselves to blame for losing ground in the race for the title that seems more like a game of catch the leader with every passing week. Although, this does highlight the Reds’ underlying inconsistencies where they’ve been hard to beat against top-tier opponents but have struggled against clubs that are fighting relegation.
There have been a few occasions this season where United have failed to impress, losing to the likes of Crystal Palace, Istanbul Basaksehir and Sheffield United, when all we could predict pre-match was a convincing win for Solskjaer’s men.
Against the traditional “big-six” clubs, the “Baby-faced assassin” has opted to go with a pragmatic approach with a double-pivot midfield of Fred and Scott McTominay shielding the back four of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. This has resulted in United playing out to goalless draws against Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea earlier this season.
Manchester United fans might not appreciate the conservative nature Solskjaer approaches these games against their fierce rivals, however, there’s no chance of a direct rival to leapfrog United on the log if they don’t get beat in these clashes. Dare I say, a page out of Jose Mourinho’s playbook.
That approach might have to change soon with the pack of teams chasing European football berths hot on their heels. A few negative results and the tables could quickly turn for the worse. Paul Pogba will be biggest miss for United after suffering a thigh injury in the 3-3 stalemate with Everton. However, during the last four meetings between these sides, Pogba has been unavailable twice and come off the bench as an impact substitute twice.
Edinson Cavani, Donny Van De Beek and McTominay will have to overcome their recent niggles to make it in time for this encounter but are expected to feature. Marcus Rashford’s strike against Newcastle United will give the 23-year-old confidence that he can score against a Tuchel coached team for the third straight game this season after netting on two separate occasions against PSG in the UEFA Champions League.
United were dumped out in the group stage of the Champions League, so, the Red Devils will have had two fewer days to rest playing on Thursday evening in the UEFA Europa League, while Chelsea faced Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night.
Nicky Butt, the head of first-team development at the Carrington Training Complex, had a front row seat next to Solskjaer last weekend as another academy graduate, Shola Shoretire made his debut against Newcastle. United’s former number eight had to step up in the absence of the entire backroom staff that are self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19.
Mendy; Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Rudiger; Hudson-Odoi, Kante, Mount, Alonso; Ziyech, Abraham, Werner.
Manchester United: 4-2-3-1
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford; Cavani.
Verdict: Draw 9/4
Tuchel demands that his teams display determination at all times, show aggression without the ball and have composure and guile to create goalscoring opportunities when in possession. Chelsea start matches with high intensity as if they’re already a goal down from the first whistle, while Solskjaer has previously tried not getting beaten by a direct rival. Chelsea is yet to concede in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge under the tutelage of the German which makes for an intriguing contest. My money is on another stalemate as I see these sides settling for a share of the spoils.
Written by Bryan Naicker