A quick look at the top three of the Premier League table, and you will see much the same thing you’ve seen for the better part of the last few months, with Manchester United holding steady at the top and Arsenal and Manchester City battling for second and third.
Still, despite those two being in the nearest distance points-wise, for a while, it appeared that the only team truly capable of preventing United from capturing title #19 is the team that did so last season, a side that currently sits not second, not third, not fourth, but fifth in the table.
Chelsea have done an excellent job of denting their chances of a repeat on their own, but today, we have the opportunity to stick the fork into their flickering title hopes as we visit Stamford Bridge in a heavily anticipated – and for good reason – tie.
It’s a meeting that’s well overdue, and if not for some friendly assistance from Everton, we might have had to wait until May to play a match that was initially scheduled for December 19.
At that time, United had just consolidated their place atop the table with a win over Arsenal, Chelsea were in the midst of a stretch in which they’d win only two of 11 league matches, and we were set to head to Stamford Bridge with a three-point lead over the Blues with a match in hand.
Since then, we’ve stretched that advantage to 15, as we’ve taken 26 of a possible 33 points – eight wins, two draws, one defeat – from our 11 matches, whereas Chelsea have managed only 14 – four wins, two draws, three defeats – from their nine. Still, with two matches to play against United and a further match in hand, the door’s still mathematically open for Chelsea to make things interesting at least for a little while, especially given the undeniable quality within their ranks.
But there’s a reason why, at present, they’re busier battling for an automatic Champions League place than for the title.
Frank Lampard’s extended injury layoff and Didier Drogba’s bout of malaria are just a couple of the issues that cropped up for Chelsea this season, but on the whole, Carlo Ancelotti hasn’t received the kind of production that he was likely expecting from the likes of Lampard (an assists machine who has no Premier League assists), Drogba (the goals have dried up mightily after a fast start), or Nicolas Anelka (only six Premier League goals in 23 appearances, compared to seven in six Champions League appearances, and that Fernando Torres fellow they signed in January has yet to start paying off any of the 50m Roman Abramovich elected to shell out for his services.
More than that, the air of invincibility that they once appeared to have has completely disappeared. This isn’t to say that their confidence has completely been shot, but just as our struggles away from home are every bit as mental as the footballing part of the equation, the same applies for Chelsea.
United haven’t won at Chelsea since a 3-0 win in April 2002, but today’s as good a chance to break that streak as there has been in quite a while. Our away form isn’t sure to inspire any fear in our opponents, but the Bridge isn’t nearly the fortress that it has been in seasons past or, better yet, was earlier this season. Chelsea won their first six home league matches this season, but since then, they’re only 2-2-2 at home, and they were also dumped out of both the FA Cup and Carling Cup at home.
Both our away record and their recent home form can be thrown out of the window, as you can be assured that both sides will be up and ready from the outset. Just as well as our presence could bring out their best, this occasion could bring out the best in United, perhaps not in quality or entertainment value but in mentality.
Will the key words of the day be neutralize and minimize? A win would not only send a serious message to those who think our away form will be our undoing in the end, and it’d also give us a season-best seven-point lead at the top. However, you can guarantee that it won’t come via risking defeat, and that’s something that will likely be reflected in Sir Alex Ferguson’s lineup decisions.
Speaking of our lineup, we will have the services of Wayne Rooney, as expected. The FA yesterday decided not to punish Rooney for elbowing Wigan’s James McCarthy in Saturday’s win at the DW Stadium. It’s safe to say that he’d be wise to avoid doing anything of the sort today, because it more than likely wouldn’t go unpunished, whether immediately or afterward.
The defining matchup will be at the back, as Chris Smalling will start in place of the injured Rio Ferdinand and be tasked with holding his own against some of the best strikers in the business. Thus far, the youngster has proven he’s up to the task, but this will be his toughest test yet, and if he comes out of it with his head held high and a solid performance to his credit, it could go a long way in determining the result we leave West London with.
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