When Manchester United hosted Chelsea last season, on a balmy Monday night in August, David Moyes’ men arrived into the fixture on the back of an impressive 4-1 win away at Swansea and while the turgid stalemate that followed against the Blues was hardly exciting, it definitely did not provide any indications about the shamble that would unfold in the following months.
That United could find themselves happy with the same result on Sunday, speaks volume of how tough United have found things under Louis Van Gaal and of how well Chelsea have done so far this season.
The excitement that surrounded Van Gaal’s arrival and a summer of lavish spending has somewhat petered out as United’s attacking prowess has been dented by the side’s dismal rearguard, while a catalogue of injuries has not helped the former Holland manager in his quest to find a settled, and functional, starting XI.
The relatively simple opening run of games that was supposed to ease Van Gaal into his new adventure is now gone, with United still looking for their first away of the season as they prepare to face the current league leaders and last season’s champions in back-to-back games, with the minor detail of a trip to the Emirates later in November looming large on the horizon.
First up, however, is Chelsea. Jose Mourinho’s troops have shown all the qualities United have been missing this season: ruthless defensively – only Southampton have conceded less goals than Chelsea and City – and devastating going forward, where Diego Costa has hit the ground running, inspired by one Cesc Fabregas, who Moyes chased in vain in the summer of 2013.
Last season Chelsea traveled to Old Trafford adopting an incredibly cautious approach, even by Mourinho’s standard, but it’s hard to imagine the Portuguese repeating the feat on Sunday, for he has his team working exactly how he wants.
United, on the other hand, last season approached big games with the attitude of a boxer who knows he’s defeated before even stepping into the ring. However, while a boxer with odds stacked against him might throw a few quick punches early on in a bid to disrupt the narrative, United simply retreated in their corner and braced themselves for the inevitable cascade of blows.
And blows arrived aplenty last season. Never in the game at Anfield, thoroughly humiliated by City at the Etihad and at Old Trafford, annihilated at home by Liverpool and dispatched by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, United conceded 14 goals against last season’s top four, scoring a meagre three goals – two of which were scored after going down 4-0 away at City and 3-0 at Chelsea.
For all of United’s frailties, that should change this season. Van Gaal’s men might not be challenging for the title, in fact even a top four finish looks tricky on recent form, but Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool are likely to a lot more worried by the prospect of facing Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao than Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.
The biggest change, however, will hopefully be in the team’s mentality.
United aren’t on the same level of Chelsea and City but while Moyes approached big games determined to limit the damage, Van Gaal thrives on taking on the best the league has to offer and, crucially, the Dutchman has won plenty of matches of this calibre throughout his career.
It’d be foolish to expect United to win every game against their rivals, for not even Fergie achieved such feat – and, in fact, adopted a very circumspect approach towards the end of his career – though the least the fans can expect is a side determined to cause problems to their opponents, rather than simply lying down to await its fate.
Van Gaal’s introduction to the Premier League is over, from Sunday Manchester United have to step up. Once and for all.
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