By the time Chelsea kick off at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Sunday, their lead at the top of the Premier League table could be chopped down to just four points.
It makes this match, that’s been a little overlooked with so much midweek football to enjoy, an absolutely vital one. Tottenham Hotspur’s scintillating recent form has kept the Blues within range and should they win, as expected, against Bournemouth on Saturday lunchtime, then what’s been called an insurmountable advantage for Chelsea doesn’t look quite so secure anymore.
For United and their manager Jose Mourinho it’s also a crucial contest, even though their priorities look to have shifted from the top-four fight to the UEFA Europa League.
At the start of the weekend, the Red Devils are in fifth, only four points back on rivals Manchester City having played a game less and six points back on Liverpool, who have played two matches more. So perhaps it’d be unwise to give up on qualification for the Champions League via the traditional route quite yet.
It’s a massive match for Mourinho as well. The Portuguese’s pride would have been dented by the two losses to his former club so far this term, especially the 4-0 surrender earlier in the Premier League season. Mourinho will demand his players put in a committed display in front of their own fans.
For neutrals, a United win would be an ideal outcome, as three points for the Red Devils would keep them in the top four shakeup and Chelsea honest in the title race. But Antonio Conte’s Blues have proven themselves to be formidable opposition in the Premier League this term.
Where to find the game on US TV and streaming
Date: Sunday, April 16, 2017
Time: 11 a.m. (ET), 8 a.m. (PT)
US TV: NBCSN
US Streaming: NBC Sports App and fubo Premier (free 7-day trial)
There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding Manchester United’s Premier League form as of late, particularly on home soil, where they logged draws with Everton and West Bromwich Albion in their last two Old Trafford outings.
But they’re still clinging on to the coattails of those sides above them. Granted, they have some games in hand that need to be won, but Mourinho is a manager who knows how to get teams over the line when it comes to this point in the season. He’ll be hoping to do the same against his former employers on Sunday.
United certainly need to make more of Old Trafford. Indeed, between now and the end of the campaign they still have to travel to Manchester City, Arsenal, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur between now and the end of the season.
It’s an uphill task, but one United should view as an opportunity. And if United are to find an edge in big games under Mourinho, they need to start somewhere. Beating the league leaders at what should be a raucous Old Trafford would be a tremendous foundation.
Thursday night’s match and the coming Thursday night will be on the mind of Mourinho, no doubt. United let an advantage slip in their Europa League quarter-final with Anderlecht, with profligate finishing costing them in a 1-1 draw.
If the Red Devils are going to preserve their 21-game unbeaten run in the Premier League this weekend, more ruthlessness will be needed in front of goal against a mean Chelsea defense.
There’s no doubt Conte’s men have been the standout side in the Premier League this season and for a long time, plenty have suggested they have the title sewn up. But the Blues manager has always expressed caution; Tottenham’s recent form is perhaps why.
Indeed, Chelsea have a thoroughbred challenger in Spurs and a team that could go within four points of their London rivals should they extend their excellent home record against the Cherries. Should they grab a victory, suddenly this becomes an enormous game for the leaders.
The Blues have performed admirably in these big matches, though. Their recent home win against a resurgent City side wasn’t pretty, although there was an authority and composure about the way they approached the game. The same qualities are needed here if they’re to emerge victorious.
They should be confident. After all, two Blues stars — N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard — were recently announced as nominees for the Player of the Year award, plus Conte has plenty of options to choose from in defense, midfield and attack. At this stage of the campaign with injuries and fatigue take hold, that’s a massive luxury.
The last three meetings between these two teams at Old Trafford have all been tight affairs, ending in draws. However, the chasm between the two clubs seems to have widened significantly this season and Chelsea will head to the Theatre of Dreams as narrow favorites.
Still, United have proven obdurate opponents and will be desperate to keep their streak going until the end of the Premier League season. If Chelsea can become the first team in 22 tries to pick up three points against the Red Devils, it will be yet another clear indicator that they’re the apex team in English football’s top flight.
Key Battle – Antonio Valencia vs. Eden Hazard
One of the surprise success stories for United so far this season has been the excellent form of Valencia at right-back. But in Hazard, he will be up against one of the finest forwards in world football at the moment.
The Ecuadorian may have been a flying winger earlier in his United career and although at times he was deployed in a defensive position, he never totally convinced. Yet under Mourinho he’s been tremendous, improving his concentration and awareness, while offering a dynamic threat with his surges forward.
Hazard has also made massive improvements on last season this term. Used in a more advanced position as part of a front three, the Belgian schemer has license to float infield, find pockets and drive at defenders. It’s liberated Hazard, who has added the stardust to the Chelsea attack.
Valencia is unlikely to be tracked by Hazard when he does raid forward, but the Chelsea man dribbling at the United full-back will be the biggest test of his improved defensive acumen this season.