Chelsea host Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon in what promises to be a heavyweight Premier League clash where the stakes are high and subplots are aplenty.
For Jose Mourinho’s United, it is a chance to avenge last season’s crushing 4-0 defeat at the hands of Antonio Conte’s Blues, at a ground where he was once heralded as the Special One, and to continue The Red Devils’ march towards league supremacy.
Conte faces a rather different proposition heading into this clash. Chelsea currently sit in fourth place in the league, just four points behind their opponents on Sunday in second. This is not a disastrous start to the season by any means. However, it is more the sense of what has been going wrong for Conte’s side that is of greater concern, particularly in relation to the benchmark of what was achieved last season.
The departures of Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic, the stuttering form of Eden Hazard and their current defensive deficiencies are all seeming to have a concerning impact. These issues were perhaps most clearly highlighted in Tuesday night’s 3-0 defeat to Roma in the Champions League, in which Chelsea were second best to the Italians by all accounts.
The scene is set for a match between two sides who each have much to prove in their respective league campaigns, but in different ways.
For United, it is a chance to build upon their impressively fought 1-0 triumph over Tottenham last weekend and further solidify their strong form against their closest rivals. Their relatively comfortable 2-0 victory over Benfica in midweek, in which they further strengthened their chances of progression to the last 16 of the Champions League, only added to the steady run of form and building of confidence in Mourinho’s ranks.
Chelsea head into this contest in contrasting mood to their counterparts, looking to put the bitter disappointment of their midweek humbling at the Stadio Olimpico behind them. Victory in a game of this magnitude, continuing in the same vein as their narrow 1-0 win away to Bournemouth last weekend, would go a long way towards appeasing the growing anxieties around Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are anxiously awaiting a final decision on whether the highly influential N’Golo Kante will be fit to return from injury for this fixture.
The Frenchman’s presence, energy and battling qualities having been sorely lacking in the Blues’ midfield of late, most apparent as they were outfought and overpowered by Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi in midweek.
A return to action for the midfield enforcer could be vital to Chelsea’s ability to compete with the likes of former Blues hero Nemanja Matic and the energetic Ander Herrera in United’s hardworking midfield. Chelsea will, however, be without Victor Moses, who remains side-lined with a hamstring injury, meaning Conte will have to choose between using Cesar Azpilicueta in a more advanced right wing-back role, or putting faith in summer signing and compatriot Davide Zappacosta to cover the Blues’ right flank.
Paul Pogba remains side-lined for United, as do Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini, along with long-term absentees Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo. Tricky decisions lie before Mourinho in selecting his team, most notably whether Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford gets the nod to start on the left side of United’s attack.
Youngster Scott McTominay is also one to look out for, having been handed a surprise start in midfield against Benfica in the absences of Pogba, Carrick and Fellaini.
Prediction: Chelsea 0-2 Manchester United