Chelsea versus Manchester United is English football's most-played fixture in recent times and one doesn't need to look beyond the FA Cup to find out why. The Blues are meeting the Red Devils in the oldest football competition for the third straight season and for the fourth time in the last six years.
There's more to it than mere luck of the draw. United are aiming for a fifth straight quarter-final appearance in the FA Cup, while the Londoners are eyeing their fourth on the bounce. The two clubs met in the final last year and it is the first time since 1998 that their paths have crossed before the quarter-finals. There have been six meetings in between and the consistency of both teams is enviable.
These cup ties in the past were mere side dishes to the main course of the title race. A chance to test the reserves, upset each other's momentum and a free playground for plenty of mind games. Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Chelsea as United's most resilient rivals ever, while the Mancunians' mercurial rise in the late noughties denied the Blues an era of prolonged dominance. Chelsea and Manchester United were each other's obstacles in what otherwise would have been an uninterrupted glory parade, not just domestically, but even on the continent.
Fast forward to 2019, almost a decade on from the time the Chelsea-Manchester United rivalry peaked, the FA Cup clash carries much-increased significance. The domestic cups are the best shot at silverware for the two rivals with the title fight confined to a resurgent Liverpool, the blue half of Manchester and London's throbbing force Tottenham Hotspur. It's the worst collective nightmare for fans of Manchester United and Chelsea, but it's a truth they've got used to in recent times — a stark measure of how far the two clubs have regressed.
Chelsea and Manchester United appear to be in the same boat albeit in distinct moments. Mauizio Sarri's 'Project Sarriball' has hit a brick wall at Stamford Bridge, while Manchester United are slowly shrugging off the ill-effects of a Jose Mourinho era filled with negativity, self-doubt and a clear lack of identity. The Premier League table that separates the two sides by just a point is expectedly the best indicator of the broadly similar fates of the two sides.
At Old Trafford, the approach adopted by caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is one full of positivity, aggression and energy, something closer to United's identity of yesteryear. However, the non-punctuated Solskjaer revolution received its first setback in midweek when a depleted Paris-Saint Germain side undid them in all departments to force to 2-0 first leg victory at Old Trafford in the Champions League Round of 16.
The defeat exposed a few chinks in the United armour that had so far been masked by the swashbuckling nature of United's football — a treat to the sore eyes of United faithful grown tired of their team's pale demeanour in recent years.
Thus when Sarri's Chelsea clash with Solskjaer's United at Stamford Bridge in a withdrawn FA Cup fifth round tie on Monday, it will all be about validation of their relatively new found approaches and systems.
The Blues under the Italian have a very rigid way of operation. Lining up in a 4-3-3 system, the Blues rely on high-pressing, quick, sharp vertical passes and most importantly, maintaining a fixed distance between the front and the back line in order to squeeze the opposition.
Chelsea's results have largely depended on their players producing the intensity required to make the system work. Better days have resulted in wins over Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in various competitions, but a bad day at the office has often led to heavy damages. A 6-0 loss to Premier League leaders Manchester City earlier this month being the lowest point in Sarri's tenure in south-west London.
Apart from the inconsistency from the Chelsea players, Sarri's lack of focus on opponents and an unorthodox deployment of his players in a few key roles have come under question. Nothing has been more debated in the Premier League this season than Sarri's use of Jorginho and N'Golo Kante.
The Italian midfielder has regularly shown incapability in dealing with the defensive side of his job, as the pace and power of the Premier League have often got the better of him. Kante on the other hand, is stuck in areas of the pitch where he lacks the necessary attributes to make an impact while his other strengths that have coaxed the pundits to classify him in the 'world class' bracket often go untapped.
Sarri has resisted talks of any change to his system even while teams have systematically undone Chelsea with the same tactics. His belief in his system has been largely unperturbed even under extreme scrutiny about his position as Chelsea head coach.
There's little to suggest that a lot will change against Manchester United on Monday, but the manner of United's defeat to PSG could push the former Napoli boss to invite some flexibility in approach.
Manchester United's 4-1-4-1 system was found out in midweek as PSG exploited the space between their midfield and defensive lines. Nemanja Matic was often left with too much to do as Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba pushed ahead to win possession high up the pitch. The likes of Julian Draxler and Angel di Maria went narrow and wreaked havoc in the second half.
Chelsea have players of similar attributes in Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian who have the tendency of narrowing the field and exploiting space in the middle of the park.
With United set to miss Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial due to injury on Monday, their ploys of pressing and counter-attacking become less effective with the relative lack of energy, pace and work rate that likely replacements Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata offer.
The big battle though is going to be played out in central midfield where Paul Pogba will up against Jorginho and vice-versa. If given a choice, both players would sign a pre-match truce to not defend against each other, but with both players being the focal point of their teams' gameplay, it's a luxury that neither will be afforded.
In the league fixture between the two teams, Mata was handed the responsibility of marking Jorginho, but with Solskjaer preferring a three-man midfield, that responsibility is certain to fall on Pogba's shoulders who often plays in that free advanced role in midfield. Putting Herrera on that duty does appear to be a more logical choice, but it could severely affect the balance of United's midfield, especially with Pogba exempt from defensive work.
On Tuesday, Marquinhos marked Pogba out of the game. The Frenchman's frustration was on display in the manner he got his marching orders late in the game. But whether Jorginho has those attributes to do a job on Pogba is questionable. The same, though, can be said about the United's French talisman when it comes to marking the Italian.
The other key battle would be between Marcus Rashford and David Luiz. The memories of Rashford beating the Brazilian to score the opening goal in a 2-0 win for United in 2017 would still be fresh in minds of Chelsea fans, so would certainly be the wild lunge their centre-back made in a failed attempt to stop Mata in the league fixture this season. Luiz's erratic decision directly cost Chelsea a goal in that game, and this has far too often been the plight with the Brazilian. Chelsea will hope and pray that a calmer and reserved Luiz that was on show against the 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season turns up on Monday night. Otherwise, there's only one winner in this battle.
At the other end, the Chelsea attack should have the upper hand against a United rearguard which is infinitely indebted to goalkeeper David de Gea for making them appear competitive. A clever Gonzalo Higuain will be much more handful for the Red Devils' defence than the likes of Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud.
Neither Chelsea nor Manchester United are perfect and hence the FA Cup tie holds more than just a place in the quarter-final as a reward. With a daunting run of games to follow after Monday night for either side, both managers are hoping to turn this fixture into a springboard for the rest of the season. Failure to do so could put the respective jobs of the managers under threat.
Chelsea-Manchester United ties during its plum, were often affairs that failed to live up to the pedestal, but ones decade later, far withdrawn from its peak promise to be a lot more enticing, especially in a knockout scenario freshly liberated from the discomforting dangling sword of fixture-congesting replays. The plots and sub-plots are simply riveting.
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Updated Date: Feb 18, 2019 08:42:37 IST