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Preview: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

A tight race for fourth place is coming down to the wire.

Chelsea v Manchester United - FA Cup Fifth Round Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Manchester United need to get their top four chase back on track against Chelsea this weekend. The Reds are mired in a miserable run, now losers of seven from nine, but miraculously remain in decent position to qualify for the Champions League next season. Thanks to recent stumbles by Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs, they’re just three points out of fourth heading into the home stretch.

Still, performances must pick up significantly. United haven’t scored from open play in 527(!) minutes, a staggering indictment of an attack that looked unstoppable just a few weeks ago. Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, and Paul Pogba all share the blame on that front.

At the very least, Wednesday’s derby was an improvement over the debacle at Goodison Park. The Reds rebounded with a game effort against heavily-favored Manchester City, forcing some nervous moments for Pep Guardiola and company before Bernardo Silva fired the visitors ahead in the second half.

United pressed hard and used Rashford’s speed to put pressure on a creaky City backline. No goals, but maybe something to build on.

Barring a particularly lopsided result — stop laughing — the Reds cannot jump Chelsea for fourth place on Sunday. But anything less than three points would be disastrous. This might not technically qualify as a must-win, but it’s pretty darn close.

Back in February, Manchester United defeated Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup behind an outstanding midfield effort from Ander Herrera. The Spaniard has been out with a hamstring injury, but could be nearing a return. “He’ll probably be involved,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “I think he’s fit enough to be involved on Sunday. I can’t guarantee it, because there’s still two days left, but he’s trained the last two days.”

Some of Solskjaer’s recent team selections have been a bit off-the-wall, but he could do a lot worse than playing the youngsters against Chelsea. Maybe not the likes of Mason Greenwood or Tahith Chong, but surely Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira, and Diogo Dalot deserve starts. It’s not like the veterans are playing particularly well.

McTominay, though, is still up in the air. “Scott failed a fitness test on Wednesday morning,” Solskjaer revealed to MUTV, “so he’s going to have another one [on Friday] to see if he’s available.”

Chelsea enter the match at Old Trafford with a few more days of rest than Manchester United, but just as many questions. Last time out, the Blues squandered a great chance to create separation by drawing at home against Burnley. Sean Dyche’s Clarets are in strong form, but that’s still a really disappointing result.

No matter how the season ends, this promises to be an interesting summer at Stamford Bridge. Maurizio Sarri appears to be on thin ice — with both the Chelsea support and board souring on the Italian manager. His underwhelming first season in charge might also be his last.

Put simply, not enough Chelsea players fit well with Sarri-ball. That’s one reason for the Gonzalo Higuain loan move in January. Higuain and Sarri made magic together at Napoli and Chelsea obviously hoped for an encore performance.

But that hasn’t happened. Higuain has scored only four goals since arriving in England.

The Chelsea manager either needs to tweak his 4-3-3 system or make some sweeping personnel changes. With the club’s upcoming transfer ban, that looks quite unlikely. The Sarri-at-Chelsea story probably won’t have a happy ending.

Even the few bright spots have plenty of questions. Eden Hazard remains tipped for a summer move to Real Madrid, in what would be a devastating blow for the London club. Chelsea have other good players — N’Golo Kante (questionable for Sunday with a rib injury), Jorginho, etc. — but Hazard’s the heartbeat of the squad. Stop him and you stop Chelsea.

And then there’s Callum Hudson-Odoi. On Monday, the 18-year-old wunderkind ruptured his Achilles tendon. Season over.

Neither side comes into this match in high spirits, but that doesn’t change the immense stakes. “Sunday is a massive one,” Solskjaer said. “Sunday is something that we have to get ready for, the crowd has got to get ready for, and the players have got to get ready for. Let’s make sure we turn up on Sunday with the same attitude and a little bit more quality in front of goal.”