Saturday’s lunchtime kickoff at Stamford Bridge begins a pivotal four day stretch for Manchester United. Losses to Chelsea and Juventus would devastate United’s prospects both domestically and in Europe. A win or two, though, and the Reds are back in business.
First up is unbeaten Chelsea — clearly United’s toughest test of this young season. The Blues join Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, while United languish in a disappointing eighth place. But, if not for a miraculous comeback last time out, it could be so much worse.
Two weeks ago, Newcastle jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first ten minutes at Old Trafford. If not for second half goals from Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, and Alexis Sánchez, who knows what might have happened during the international break?
Despite persistent media reports in the run-up to the Newcastle match, José Mourinho remains the club’s manager — although he might be absent on Saturday. The FA charged the United boss for his intemperate outburst at the television cameras in the moments after his side’s big comeback win and he now faces a possible touchline ban.
The biggest question for Saturday, though, concerns the health of a few key players. Luke Shaw pulled himself out of the England squad after picking up an undisclosed injury against Newcastle. Nemanja Matić also returned early to Carrington with a back injury.
While Shaw has turned in an impressive season to this point, Matić’s loss presents the more vexing problem. United need all hands on deck to shut down Chelsea’s potent playmakers and, ideally, Matić would’ve been a huge part of that game plan.
With Manchester United still in a very fragile state — and now set to face the class of the Premier League — they can ill afford such important defensive losses. The late reports out of Belgium’s camp of a Marouane Fellaini injury only adds to Mourinho’s headache.
For those United players who dodged the injury bug, it’s been an impressive international break. Romelu Lukaku might be struggling to score for his club, but continues to bang them in for Belgium. In their 2-1 win over Switzerland, Big Rom scored both goals.
Marcus Rashford also managed to stuff the stat sheet for England. After a forgettable night against Croatia, the 20-year-old scored a goal and assisted on another against Spain.
United’s right wing spot remains unsettled, so any boost for Rashford only helps his case for more playing time. Of course, Juan Mata started the Newcastle comeback with a brilliant free kick and surely relishes the chance to suit up against his former club this weekend.
Perhaps the most intriguing news out of the break was a quasi-vote of confidence for José Mourinho from a most unexpected source. Speaking to Belgian outlet HLN, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard picked The Special One as the manager he most hoped to be reunited with.
“If I’m now asked one coach with whom I want to work again, then I say Mourinho,” Hazard answered. “Mourinho’s image as an extremely defensive coach isn’t completely right. The season in which we became champions, we made many goals and played good games.”
While there’s absolutely no chance that this reunion happens at Old Trafford (although I’d love to be wrong about that), it does add a little extra spice to Saturday’s match.
As if it needed that. Maurizio Sarri only arrived at Chelsea in July to replace Antonio Conte, but his Blues already look like a well-oiled machine. They’re unbeaten in eight Premier League matches, joint leaders, and already knocked Liverpool out of the Carabao Cup. Impressive stuff from the new man.
But that’s Chelsea in a nutshell. Roman Abramovich cycles through managers so quickly that the players seem to get a boost from the new boss before things grow stale and they begin tuning him out. Just ask Mourinho and Conte what a fast start at Chelsea gets you. Not much.
It does keep the club’s trophy case full, though.
After the militaristic Conte, Sarri brings a dose of fun back to Stamford Bridge. He preaches an attractive style of football that focuses on moving the ball quickly into attacking positions. When the Blues lose the ball, they furiously press the opposition high up the pitch to quickly win it back.
That equals a lot of possession and long stretches of watching the ball ping around Chelsea’s midfield and forward line. United’s defense has hardly set the world on fire this season, so anything less than their best on Saturday would mean a very long day (and an embarrassing scoreline).
Oh, and the aforementioned Eden Hazard also just happens to be in the form of his life. The Belgian winger already has seven goals in eight games, adjusting to life under Sarri faster than most.
But he owes part of that sizzling start to his new teammate, Jorginho. Sarri brought Jorginho with him from Napoli this summer and the midfielder has been invaluable. If N’Golo Kante is Chelsea’s destroyer, then Jorginho is the creator. Hazard gets all the glory, but the newest Blue keeps his side ticking and the ball moving.
José Mourinho typically assigns Ander Herrera to hound Hazard all over the pitch. This man-marking strategy has been pretty effective. With Herrera hobbled with an ankle injury, though, Mourinho either needs a new strategy or to pray for the Spaniard’s quick recovery. Scott McTominay, who shadowed Hazard once last season, is also sidelined and doubtful for Saturday.
If there’s a weak link in this Chelsea side, it comes up top. Both Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata have made quiet starts to the season, with only four goals between them. If the Reds can bottle up Hazard and Jorginho, Chelsea will struggle to score. But, with this United defense, that’s easier said than done.
Saturday won’t be easy. Chelsea are flying high with an exciting new style of play, while Manchester United still struggle to right their ship. Dealing Sarri’s side their first loss of the season would be a powerful statement that the slump is over. Plus, United owe the Blues a little payback for the FA Cup final last May.