After the gut-punch that was the Real Madrid tie, it's time to get back up. Chelsea may not be the Muhammad Ali that Real Madrid is*, but the Blues can still pack a Wladimir Klitschko type of blow if Manchester United don't have their guard up on Sunday. Perhaps this FA Cup quater-final is the fight the Reds need after European heartbreak.
* I suppose that analogy even works stylistically -- Real's sensational counterattack being akin to Ali's 'rope-a-dope'.
United and Chelsea have met twice already this season, with both encounters occurring at Stamford Bridge and within four days of each other at the end of October. In the Premier League fixture, Sir Alex Ferguson's side scored two early goals prior to Roberto Di Matteo's side -- the then Chelsea manager -- storming back to equalise. Fernando Torres was then controversially sent off in the 68th minute and this was soon followed by Javier Hernandez's (Chicharito) winner. In the League Cup clash, a youthful United side battled valiantly but ultimately, they were defeated 5-4 after extra-time.
Form Guide: Prior to the defeat by Real on Tuesday, United had gone 18 successive matches unbeaten in all competitions. If you're willing to throw out two UEFA Champions League group-stage ties that had no consequence for the Reds at the time, then that streak was 21 matches. Ferguson's side currently enjoy a 12-point advantage over Manchester City in the league title-race.
Form Guide: Things haven't gone so smooth for Chelsea under Rafa Benitez. Who knew that would happen?
The Blues have slipped to fourth in the Premier League, but they do still have a 5-point advantage over Arsenal for the final Champions League qualification spot. Their most recent result occurred on Thursday when they were defeated 1-0 at Steaua Bucuresti during a Europa League tie. Chelsea's last two domestic results have been victories over West Bromwich Albion (league) and Middlesbrough (FA Cup).
Team News: Oriol Romeu is the only expected absence for Chelsea.
United: Ferguson has continually stressed the importance of the FA Cup this season -- a competition the club hasn't won since 2004 -- so he's likely to use a nearly full-strength side. United also don't have a midweek fixture to worry about in the following days.
David de Gea is expected in goal, Rafael is anticipated at right-back, while Patrice Evra is probable at left-back. In central-defense, captain Nemanja Vidic could be given a rest after recently featuring twice in a four-day span. That would make Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans the clear central-defender choices. The former, though, is also possible for a rest and there's speculation that the latter has been carrying a very slight knock (he was still in the 18 against Real Madrid on Tuesday, though). Therefore, Chris Smalling is possible to start.
In midfield, Michael Carrick is probable while Tom Cleverley and Anderson are in contention to start. Out wide to the right, either Nani or Antonio Valencia is expected. It's worth noting that the latter has continually gotten the better of Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole in the past. On the left, all of Nani, Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, or Wayne Rooney are possible.
In attack, Robin van Persie is expected as the lead striker but Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) is in contention. The scoring has dried up as of late for the Dutchman -- 1 goal in his past 8 appearances -- while the Mexican has scored in 5 of his past 6 games against Chelsea. In behind the lead striker, Rooney seems most likely but either Kagawa or Welbeck are possible.
Chelsea: Peter Cech is the No.1 and in front of him in central-defense, any two of David Luiz, Gary Cahill, John Terry, or Branislav Ivanovic are possible. At right-back, the latter is in contention to start as is Cesar Azpilicueta. At left-back, Ashely Cole is expected to start.
In Benitez's 4-2-3-1, two of Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel, Ramires or Luiz are anticipated. In the attacking midfield line, playmakers Juan Mata, Oscar, and Eden Hazard are usually the first three considered but two of them could be complimented by the more defensively stable Ramires or Ryan Bertrand in the wide areas. Victor Moses is also a more direct option out wide. Up front, Demba Ba is expected to be chosen over Fernando Torres.
I'm going to break this tactical preview down into four key zones:
(1) United's right-side vs Chelsea's left-side: During the reverse league fixture in October, United had all sorts of joy down Chelsea's left-side. As previously mentioned, Valencia has had a lot success against Cole and despite the Ecuadorian not being in good form this season, he combined superbly with Rafael to break for 2 v 1 situations at the Bridge. The speed and directness of United's breaks surely troubled Chelsea but Hazard -- from his left-sided attacking role -- didn't do Cole by an favors by continually being caught out and allowing Rafael to burst forward unchallenged. Ferguson will want to repeat this scenario but Benitez could choose either Oscar or Bertrand if he wants a more defensively responsible player on the left-side of his attack.
(2) United's left-side vs Chelsea's right-side: A go-to tactic for Ferguson in recent seasons has been to allow Ivanovic all the space that he could ever want when the Chelsea defender is deployed at right-back. Even though the Serb has improved his crossing, you can be sure that the United manager will allow him the space to do so if he features there. Azpilicueta is better getting forward and helping out in attack so it's certainly possible that the Spaniard features at right-back instead. Any of the trio of tricky playmakers -- Mata, Oscar, and Hazard -- are possible in the right-side of attack as is the direct Moses. However, if Benitez seeks more defensive solidity on this flank, the industrious Ramires is also possible. The Brazilian can also be a threat on the counterattack when he breaks forward.
(3) Rooney vs Mikel?: I seem to recall a slight bit of drama -- although none from the club itself -- in regards to Rooney being dropped for some midweek fixture recently. It's probably a decent bet that he starts against Chelsea and most likely in a role behind the lead striker. One player who probably won't be thrilled about this is Mikel because Rooney has gotten the better of the Nigerian over the past few years.
Mikel is a better player than he's generally given credit for. However, Rooney typically does well to elude him with his movement and even though the Englishman's defensive effectiveness is pretty hit-or-miss these days -- increasingly towards the latter -- allowing the Nigerian time on the ball isn't a huge deal. Mikel is tidy with his distribution and he does pass forward more than his critics give him credit for, however, he's no Xabi Alonso with his range of passing. United should have an advantage in this zone if it's a Rooney vs Mikel match-up.
(4) Carrick vs Chelsea's No.10 and Lampard: Another match-up where a United player has gotten the better of his counterpart in recent seasons is Carrick vs Lampard. United tend to do well in tracking the Chelsea midfielder's late runs into the box-- credit for this should be given to the positioning of Carrick and the center-backs along with presumably good communication in the back -- while no one on the Blues ever seems to get tight to the United deep-lying playmaker. Therefore, Carrick generally plays quite well against Chelsea.
Benitez could deploy a more energetic midfielder -- perhaps Ramires or Luiz -- to get tight on Carrick or he could ask the No.10 to drop deep when out of possession in order to help out defensively. Mata is a tremendous player but he's not strong defensively and he likely wouldn't be able to help out from a No.10 role in this regard. In reverse responsibilities, Carrick -- in tandem with United's two central-defenders -- has proven that he can be entrusted with defending against a top-notch No.10. Oscar would be the choice if Benitez is worried defensively about his central-playmaker.
KO: 4:30pm GMT, 12:30pm EST
Live TV: ITV1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Howard Webb
Odds: Manchester United 4/5, Draw 5/2, Chelsea 7/2