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Starting XI: Chelsea vs. Manchester United

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The Reds shoot for three in a row over Chelsea

Brandon Williams of Manchester United and Reece James of... Photo by Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Everything you need to know ahead of Monday’s match:

(1) Winter break came at a pretty good time for Manchester United. The Reds are winless in their last three Premier League matches and needed time (and training) to fully integrate big-money signing Bruno Fernandes into the squad. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer treated his team to a warm weather camp in Marbella to regroup, recharge, and plot a way back into the top-four race. Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe, both nearing a return from injury, made the trip to Spain. Paul Pogba, unfortunately, did not.

(2) Odion Ighalo also remained back in Manchester. Signed on loan in the dying moments of deadline day, Ighalo provides United with a competent replacement for the injured Marcus Rashford. Sure, the Marbella camp would have been the perfect chance to get the 30-year-old up to speed with his new teammates, but United were wise to be cautious. Ighalo joined from Shanghai Shenhua and the club feared possible complications on re-entering the UK if coronavirus restrictions increase. Even so, Solskjaer expects him to be in the squad on Monday.

(3) A lot rides on Ighalo over the next few weeks (and maybe months). The boyhood United fan scored 39 goals for Watford — including fifteen in his first Premier League season — before cashing in with a move to China in 2017. Since that first EPL season, though, Ighalo has been a little up and down. Encouragingly, he finished as top scorer in last year’s African Cup of Nations. Manchester United really need him to hit the ground running at Old Trafford.

(4) Michael Carrick on the benefits of the winter break and this week’s camp in Marbella:

It is a great chance for the lads to have a few days away and mentally switch off, which I think they needed. It is going to help them going forward and then to come now and get back down to business and get a good week’s work in. It is something that you can’t spend much time standing around in back at the training ground because of the weather, so it’s a different type of training we can do here. We can get a lot more information and detail across and enjoy the sunshine. It just creates a better environment for the training sessions.

(5) Manchester United have had Chelsea’s number so far this season. On opening day, the Reds shellacked Lampard’s side 4-0; a performance of dominant football that has been seldom seen since. Then, in October, United knocked Chelsea out of the Carabao Cup with a 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge. In fact, United haven’t lost to the Blues since the 2018 FA Cup final, when a Phil Jones defensive blunder cost the club another piece of silverware.

(6) In the race for the final Champions League spot, Chelsea are struggling to pull away from the chasing pack. Sheffield United sit fifth — albeit having played a match more — only two points behind the Blues. Their closest legit challenger (apologies to the Blades) is Tottenham Hotspur in sixth, who seem to have recovered from a mini-slump over Christmas. Manchester United remain in striking distance, though currently find themselves in eighth behind Carlo Ancelotti’s resurgent Everton.

(7) Monday’s match kicks off a brutal homestand for Chelsea. After Manchester United, José Mourinho’s Spurs come to Stamford Bridge on Saturday — and, depending on this weekend’s results, might even have a chance to leapfrog the Blues into fourth. Then, next Tuesday, Chelsea host Bayern Munich in the Champions League. These three matches could make or break their season.

(8) Chelsea were oddly quiet during the January transfer window. After their transfer ban derailed Frank Lampard’s efforts to put his own stamp on this squad last summer, most expected the Blues to splash the cash and bring in reinforcements in January. Especially considering their recent downturn in form. Alas, it didn’t happen. But, just this week, Chelsea agreed a £37 million summer transfer for Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech. It won’t impact Monday’s match, but might still provide a boost in spirits to Lampard and company.

(9) This is a very young Chelsea side — with Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Christian Pulisic all playing major roles. So it comes as no surprise that all of the above have run a bit hot and cold throughout the season. Abraham, in particular, has hit a dry spell in front of goal (just three goals in eleven Premier League matches since December). That’s par for the course for any 22-year-old, but Chelsea heavily rely on him to galvanize their attack, as no other player has scored more than five league goals.

(10) Another of Chelsea’s young guns, Kepa Arrizabalaga, finds himself in Frank Lampard’s doghouse. The boss dropped him last time out against Leicester, throwing Willy Caballero in goal in hopes of delivering a wake-up call to the 25-year-old keeper. It didn’t work too well, though. Caballero looked rusty and handed Leicester an easy goal, leading most to expect that Kepa will be back between the sticks on Monday.

(11) Everyone knows about Manchester United’s injury woes, but Chelsea are dealing with a few fitness headaches themselves. Christian Pulisic suffered a muscular injury in his leg on Boxing Day and was recently dealt a setback when he tried to return to training. He’s questionable for Monday. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, on the other hand, is expected back on Monday — just not for the United match. He’s slated for a few minutes in Chelsea’s U23 game as his slow recovery from a ruptured achilles enters its final stages.