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Premier League's fallen giants Manchester United and Chelsea battle inconsistency ahead of season-defining clash

Context is important: Steven Caulker, Jon Flanagan, Jose Enrique, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel, Joe Allen, Christian Benteke are the players the now-table-topping Liverpool had in their roster in the year 2015 - the first year of Jurgen Klopp’s ascension to the football’s most prized and scintillating restoration job. The reason why this is brought up in this preview is to lend context to Maurizio Sarri’s and Chelsea’s growing pains as well as their opponents Manchester United.

“I am sure that, in two seasons, Chelsea will be able to be narrow the gap between  Liverpool and Manchester City,” the Chelsea manager Sarri said in the pre-match press conference ahead of their visit to Old Trafford to face Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United.

 Premier Leagues fallen giants Manchester United and Chelsea battle inconsistency ahead of season-defining clash

Eden Hazard will be key for Chelsea against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. AFP

This season two teams (Liverpool and City) are partaking in a dogfight in the stratosphere, while all the teams below are witnessing the duel from the ground through high-powered binoculars, mouth-agape. Tottenham, the 3rd placed team for instance, sit 3rd but with a points difference of 21 between them and Liverpool, while Chelsea squatting uncomfortably at the threshold of the top-four classroom, find themselves 4th, with a difference of 26 points.

“But I am not sure,” said Sarri, “ that in two seasons, Chelsea will be able to be better than them.” The same can be said about Manchester United.

While the symptoms are different, the wounds inflicted on the former heavyweights of the Premier League are both with the same blunt instrument of mismanagement at the board level. When Manchester United’s head office in London is dusted, the recruitment policy at the club will have the grubby fingerprints of a merchandising cash-grab, done to placate stock owners, sponsors, agents and right owners in light of their recent unsuccess (the offices were moved to be closer to the London Stock Exchange).

Fellow fourth-place pugilists Chelsea are in a flux where the manager is trying to wrestle back the narrative from the toxic status quo held by certain players in the dressing room since the money-doping days of Jose Mourinho. That is when numerous surreptitious deals went down that kept pushing the boundaries of international transfer laws by its sheer nature of Russian mafia-ness. Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Ashley Cole, WIlliam Gallas, Ricardo Carvalho — the backbone of their title-winning sides, were all procured through contentious transfers. This period coincided with the hyperinflation of football’s transfer market and rise of the super-agents (Mino Raiola, Joorabchian and Pini Zahavi), who would often provide a discount on the bulk purchase of two-or-more of the players he represents. If the animated series Avatar specialised in the art of wind-bending, these agents are the marquises of law-bending.

This is the self-same stubborn waiving of due process that made even the usually, irresponsibly-lax governing body, UEFA, hand the club a two-window transfer ban. This has happened after repeated transgressions (their fourth time in five years) of soliciting football services from minors (as per FIFA law, children under the age of 18, will not be able to sign a binding-contract under law.) To elaborate, Chelsea with a sizeable donation to their affiliated overseas clubs in 3rd-world regions as Brazil, are entitled to a first-option on the ownership of prospective Ronaldinhos by the tender age of 14.

Sarri has been transferred from Napoli as a football general surgeon to snip the cancerous lump of mis-process from the top down at Chelsea. He identified his self-worth in the press conference by stating, matter-of-factly: “When I arrived in Naples, Napoli had finished 24 points from Juventus. In the first season, we ended up nine points from Juventus. In the second season, it was five points and, in the third season, four points. For us it was impossible for us to cover completely the gap but we were very close to doing it.”

Solskjaer highlighted the difference of his task in his pre-match press conference: “It is not like players v managers here. We are all in this together and we are all working hard to improve.” Sarri’s counterpart in the red corner, Solskjaer has been recalled to cauterise the identity scar-tissue of a club split between being a global brand and a footballing institution through the placebo pill of nostalgia. Talks of enstating Mike Phelan as the technical director earlier this week, follow a see-through script of 'the prodigal son(s) returning'.

In the immediate future, the Lancashire club will be facing Chelsea on Sunday. They have more pressing concerns coming into this season-defining fixture on the back of three losses in their last six games.

“We didn’t respect ourselves or our fans,” Paul Pogba came out to say in a face-saving exercising following their 4-0 boinking by Everton. He continued: “I  know it may not be enough, but the fans want a reaction from the players and the only way to apologise to them is to give everything on the pitch.” “That was an eye-opener,” admitted Smeagol-eyed Solskjaer.

Promptly after this interview with Sky Sports, they lost to city-rivals 0-2 at home, in match where the men in red were thoroughly, teasingly outclassed. Chelsea, by contrast, are riding on a better wind of form, with just one defeat in their last six.

Manchester United adopted an ultra-defensive five-man defence vs Manchester City last game, playing under the banner of a white flag. Against Chelsea, one would imagine soloists like Pogba may just turn up, too emphatically, and play for the general-good of the wider Manchester United orchestra if not only for their wounded egos. If that is indeed the narrative, Chelsea will invite it.

Sarri and Chelsea’s strength lies in the counter-attack. At Napoli, his players at the upturn of possession, would charge like Huns. Trying to replicate that model with Eden Hazard and Willian, while it has understandably taken time, is now beginning to flourish. They asked Liverpool questions at the Anfield, where they lost 2-0.

More importantly, the transfer that Sarri will have lived or died by, Jorginho, has finally taken center-stage as the conductor. Pat, pat, pat of his wand of a foot would time Chelsea attacks like waves at high tide. Ashley Young will have to contend with the interchangeability of Hazard’s role through the course of the match and avoid the repeat of highway pile-up defending vs Barcelona that were the subject to the magpie cleverness of Twitter memes.

Sarri and Chelsea will be facing the challenge with self-assurance. He said: “We played a final, which we lost on penalties. We are in the semi-final in the Europa League. We are fighting for the top four. So the season, at the moment, is good.”

If Solskjaer is unable to carjack this momentum away from Chelsea and pull in at their garage, missing out on Champions League football qualification could be the first strike on his license as the manager of Manchester United. The Norwegian has been essentially handcuffed to the wheel by the confederacy of dunces at the highest level.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 13:45:06 IST