Today is one of the most important days in the American sporting calendar, as the NFL’s Super Bowl takes place. But well before the rival Giants and Patriots kick off in Indianapolis, the real clash of the titans will take place at Stamford Bridge.
Either Manchester United or Chelsea have won the last seven Premier League titles, and in that time, the two sides have developed quite the rivalry, to put it mildly. And though Chelsea haven’t been at their best in Andre Villas-Boas’ first season at the helm, today’s showdown is still undoubtedly one of United’s biggest games of the season, because it’s Chelsea, because Chelsea don’t need to be allowed an opening back into the title race, and because United need to keep pace in that race.
United have had the upper hand against Chelsea over the last season-plus, winning five of the last six meetings. Last season, the two sides faced off five times – twice in the league, in the Champions League quarterfinals, and in the Community Shield – and United won four of those meetings. The only defeat came in the league encounter at Stamford Bridge, which United led 1-0 in the second half before Chelsea rallied for a 2-1 win.
In the only meeting thus far this season, United claimed a 3-1 win at home in September, a match that’s remembered, almost as much as anything else, for a series of mind-blowing misses on both sides that left the scoreline at 3-1 when it could and should have been a baseball score.
1. Chelsea are currently fourth in the Premier League table, with 42 points from 23 games. They’re unbeaten thus far in 2012, but they come into today having drawn their last two league matches, at Norwich City and Swansea City respectively. On Tuesday, they drew 1-1 at Swansea, needing a late own goal by the hosts to come away with a point.
2. A big part of Chelsea’s success over the last several seasons has been their prowess at home, but they haven’t been invincible at Stamford Bridge this season. Chelsea are 7-1-3 at home in the league this season, with defeats to Arsenal (5-3), Liverpool (2-1), and Aston Villa (3-1). Chelsea haven’t lost three or more home matches in a season since the 2003/04 season, the first season of the Roman Abramovich era. In their last three home matches, they have a draw (1-1 v. Fulham), a defeat (to Villa), and a narrow win (1-0 v. Sunderland).
3. Chelsea have scored 24 goals at home this season, which is tied with Tottenham and Arsenal for third in the league. However, 15 of those goals came in their first five home matches of the season, and as mentioned above, they’ve scored only one goal in each of their last three home matches.
4. Chelsea have allowed 16 goals at home this season, which is tied with Aston Villa and West Brom for 12th in the league. Chelsea haven’t allowed this many goals at home in an entire season since the 2001/02 season, when they allowed 21 league goals at home.
1. Despite having a few of the aforementioned factors in their favor, it will be a massive achievement for United to win today. The 1-0 Champions League quarterfinal first leg win in April was the first time that United had won at Chelsea in almost nine years. But United have played well overall away from home this season, and if they can win at City and at Arsenal, they can win at Chelsea. And if there was a time to do it, today’s the day, with as many positive factors in United’s favor as there might ever be.
2. United’s chances will be greatly boosted by the return of a few welcome faces. Wayne Rooney, who scored in the September win over Chelsea and has scored in each of his last two visits to Stamford Bridge, will be back, and so will Nani, who had a goal and an assist in that last meeting.
Also, Ashley Young will be back after being sidelined since suffering an ankle injury against Fulham in December, and while Nani and the in-form (my, what an understatement) Antonio Valencia should draw the starting assignments on the wings today, Young could be a real weapon off the bench in the second half against a tired Chelsea back line.
And in even more positive news, Tom Cleverley is in the squad as well, though it’s unlikely that he’ll play today. But that means he should be available for next Saturday’s showdown against Liverpool, and that is very, very welcome news.
3. Speaking of Chelsea’s back line, cap’n John Terry will be missing due to a knee injury, which means that Gary Cahill will make his Chelsea debut. But even more important than the absence of their captain is the absence of Ashley Cole, who is suspended for the match after being sent off at Swansea. Without Cole in there, Valencia could and should have a field day. If he does, it will greatly, greatly enhance United’s chances for a win.
4. David de Gea will be back in goal after Ben Amos started against Stoke, and this is going to be a big, big, big game for De Gea. Will he rise to the occasion, or will we see more mistakes? The margin for error in matches like these is miniscule, and he will need to be sharp today.
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