This weekend, Chelsea and Manchester United meet at Stamford Bridge as the top two in the Premier League for the first time since April 2008. Manchester City may already have overtaken their rivals before kick-off, but the Blues will remain leaders whatever the outcome of Sunday’s match. That the two teams will meet again in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday will have no bearing on team selection for one of the biggest games in English league football.
Manchester Utd (21) and Chelsea (19) are the league’s two highest scorers, although United have conceded almost twice as many goals (11) as the Blues (six). So, after weeks of bluster, the heat has finally been taken out of the situation. We refer of course to the weather. It is likely to be a damp, chilly 8°C at kick-off.
(Memo to Sir Alex – it is not only the away dressing room that will be cool enough ‘to hang meat in’ this time.)
With that in mind, as winter draws on, the Manchester United manager likes to remind the media that his ‘traditionally slow starters’ are always better in the second half of the season. United have 18 points from eight games to date. Last season they had gathered 20 by the same stage. In 2010/11, when they last won the league, the figure was 14, and in 2009/10 – the season Carlo Ancelotti steered Chelsea to the Double – it was 19.
But there is no evidence that they perform better after Christmas. The halfway split was 45 from the first 19 games, 44 the rest last season, 41/39 in 2010/11 and in 2009/10 it was 40/45. If those figures suggests anything it is that United’s best part of the season varies from year to year. Days such as Tuesday in Donetsk are sometimes better written off than written down. Thankfully, Nordsjaelland’s holding of Juventus was of equal significance. The Italians have now not won in 10 European matches.
Chelsea’s task remains to win both remaining home games in Group E and gain something from the trip to Turin. The game against Shakhtar was a painful suggestion that without a soloist such as Didier Drogba calling the tune, the whole orchestra has to be on song to win the day. Oscar ‘s third Champions League goal may become vital in the head-to-head tally with the Ukrainians come December. Still, the weekend performance at Tottenham offered hope that with the right intensity a Chelsea that is more Swiss army knife than blunt instrument is emerging. The team is already 10 points up on like-for-like matches last season.
Which players from the current Man Utd team, if any, d’you think would get into the present Chelsea side? #CFCPMB
This game offers the opportunity to make that 12. Last season the Blues raced into a 3-0 lead five minutes into the second half, with goalkeeper David De Gea always unsettled. However two penalties in 10 minutes awarded by Howard Webb turned the visitors’ fortunes around, and Javier Hernandez snatched a late point.
It felt like a defeat.
The Blues have conceded just over half the number of goals as Sunday’s visitors. Sir Alex Ferguson says the reason he cannot put his finger on why Man United are shipping so many is because of the variety of ways they are let in. It was certainly unfamiliar to see them allow Michael Kightly to bundle his way straight through their centre to score for Stoke last weekend.United have allowed their opponent to score first in six of the eight matches played so far – the worst record in the top flight. Chelsea have been the most alert, Norwich alone stealing a march on the European champions, only to lose 1-4 in the end.
Nevertheless it is a mark of the Red Devils’ determination that they have overturned four of those six early setbacks, losing the other two. As a result Ferguson’s side have salvaged 12 points from losing positions. In that respect the Blues are not far behind, having trailed during games and responded to gain nine points - last week’s reaction at 1-2 down to Tottenham last weekend providing the perfect example.
Chelsea and Man United’s neighbours Manchester City are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the Barclays Premier League. The Blues are on a six-match winning streak at home in domestic competitions, but United have won their last three league games on the road. Were the league based on second halves of matches alone Man United would be leaders, just, on goal difference.
The Blues have not lost to United at Stamford Bridge in the league for more than a decade. In that 3-3 visit last season the Red Devils almost doubled their goals tally, from four to seven, in their last 11 visits in all competitions.