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Preview: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

Manchester United are happy to be back home for Sunday’s grudge match against Chelsea

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League

Manchester United return to Old Trafford on Sunday for a pivotal Premier League showdown with Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. The Reds have played seven of their last ten matches on the road, including this week’s trip to Spain in the Champions League.

On Wednesday, United and Sevilla labored to a 0-0 stalemate in what turned out to be a surprisingly physical contest. A day earlier, Chelsea took a short-lived lead on Barcelona before settling for a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Willian, a José Mourinho favorite during the manager’s second stint in London, opened the scoring in the 62nd minute. Lionel Messi, though, once again came to Barcelona’s rescue. His equalizer sent Barca home happy with a crucial away goal.

Like most teams, Chelsea struggled for possession against the Catalan giant. But Willian warns that the Blues will not employ such a laid-back approach in Manchester this weekend.

“We can go there and do a great job against Manchester United,” the 29-year-old Brazilian winger told Sky Sports. “I think it’s going to be a different game from this one here. I think we can go there and win this game.”

His confidence is understandable because Chelsea have only lost once in their last fourteen matches against United. Back in November, the Reds lost 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in one of this season’s more lackluster performances. Alvaro Morata’s bullet header in the second half proved the difference.

But most of the recent excitement in this rivalry has come off the pitch. Mourinho’s mind-game battle with Conte has raged all season long, with the United boss sharing his thoughts on his counterpart’s rumored hair transplant, “clownish” touchline celebrations, and past implication in an Italian match-fixing scandal. The Chelsea manager fired back by accusing Mourinho of suffering from dementia. It’s all been very dignified and professional.

Just a few weeks ago, Chelsea looked a club in crisis with Conte on the verge of the sack. He’s still likely to leave (or be pushed) this summer, but the Blues have righted the ship with wins over West Brom and Hull City and the draw with Barcelona. They might not be back to their best, but have definitely come a long way since back-to-back thrashings by Bournemouth and Watford.

At Sevilla, Manchester United took a big risk by resting several key players in the first-leg. Eyebrows surely shot up everywhere when Mourinho released his team-sheet with Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, and Eric Bailly all on the bench. Pogba, though, spent little time there after Ander Herrera hobbled off after only 17 minutes.

Herrera will be a big loss, particularly against Chelsea. Starting with last season’s FA Cup match in London, Mourinho has deployed Herrera as his squad’s designated Eden Hazard marker. The Spaniard chased Hazard all over the pitch, keeping the influential playmaker occupied at all times and without open space to run into.

If Herrera’s injury proves serious — and Mourinho suggested it might be — there’s no obvious candidate to take up his mantle against Hazard. The boss might need to devise a new scheme for containing the Belgian. Unfortunately, he’s only got a few days.

Other than that, United should be set up well for this weekend. None of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez, or Anthony Martial played the whole match in Spain; Jesse Lingard and Eric Bailly didn’t play at all. Plus, Marcus Rashford got a short run-out in his first action since February 3. Even in a week with two important matches in four days, there shouldn’t be too many tired legs in the United camp.

In his post-match press conference, Mourinho praised Pogba for filling in for the injured Herrera: “Paul made a big effort to try to give the team what I ask of the team.”

He later added, “I think the three midfield players, they had good control and Paul was part of it.”

It’s gotten very crowded at the top of the Premier League table, with Manchester United just three points ahead of Sunday’s opponent. But Chelsea, too, sit only a single point above Tottenham Hotspur in fifth. This match could go a long way towards determining which of these clubs end up in the top four.

United have an uneven record against the other big teams and cannot afford a defeat this weekend. At least one of United, Liverpool, Chelsea, or Spurs will miss out on a Champions League place at season’s end. One bad result could leave any of these clubs on the outside looking in.

A win on Sunday at Old Trafford would be a big statement by Manchester United. At the very least, they need to back up their manager’s trash talk with a strong performance.