Second-place Manchester United face fifth-place Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League on Sunday, with six points separating the two teams.
Chelsea are riding high with four wins in their last five league games and, most recently, a 1-0 first leg away win against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday under new manager™ Thomas Tuchel.
United’s last two matches were mostly spent blooding exciting youngsters while also picking up three points against Newcastle and progressing to the last-16 of the Europa League, where United will face AC Milan.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær selected a curiously strong side for the second leg home tie against Real Sociedad, given the ample 4-0 cushion, but perhaps not that surprising when you consider the squad available – and just how inexperienced the selected youth players are. Solskjær avoided a situation where Amad Diallo and especially Shola Shoretire were burdened with any added pressure of La Real making a comeback, leaving their introductions until the second half.
Besides, minutes for Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe were higher on the agenda for the United manager. United’s general indifference in the first half on Thursday justified Solskjær’s cautious approach and, fortunately, Bruno Fernandes, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Marcus Rashford all survived their 45-minute cameos.
Having had a rare night off on the substitutes bench in midweek, Harry Maguire will return, hopefully with somewhat renewed vigour, for a crucial run of fixtures on the spin for United.
United have three other central defenders – Victor Lindelöf, Eric Bailly, and Axel Tuanzebe – vying to partner Maguire in the middle of the defence, each at different stages of their United careers, and neither capable yet of owning their position or even ousting the club captain.
Whether United look to develop or promote within, or prioritise the issue in the summer transfer window, Maguire is leading the defence right now – and United will need him at his best to win any silverware this season.
Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, new manager to boot, is as good a test as any for Maguire as we reach the business end of a frantic campaign.
Rashford and Wan-Bissaka were always destined to play just the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford against Real Sociedad. Whether Fred was also part of the pre-planned half-time refresh is unclear, considering his booking and previous leanings towards a second yellow in European competition, but we can assume so.
Chelsea’s counter-press under Thomas Tuchel will frustrate United when United have possession. Fred’s ability to receive the ball and release it forwards in tight spaces will be valuable in central midfield, as will his tenacity.
Cue plenty of ‘Fred: actually good’ remarks for United’s newest marmite player, should United perform.
Donny van de Beek is expected to be available again for selection along with Scott McTominay. There is increasing clamour to try Van de Beek in central midfield while Paul Pogba remains injured, for creativity’s sake, but in from the cold against Chelsea is not the occasion.
United’s midfield has been poorer for McTominay’s three-game absence, lacking his presence and energy, and the Scotsman’s progress will be examined acutely on Sunday should he return.
Update: McTominay is “out.” :-/
The new United Trinity, erect the statue now. United’s optimal attacking trio behind the striker, all in their current best positions, and all given pockets of recuperation recently. Mouthwatering. United, though, have lacked goals in big games and Chelsea’s recent defensive record intensifies the challenge.
Anthony Martial is making it very easy for Edinson Cavani and, when fit, the Uruguayan should saunter back into the team. A goal against one of United’s rivals would elevate Cavani’s standing further still – but how Cavani complements Mason Greenwood, Fernandes, and Rashford matters most at this moment.