Manchester United vs. Chelsea: How the Red Devils Can Stop Hazard and Mata
The Blues were deserved winners when the two sides met last month, triumphing thanks to a second-half Demba Ba goal.
The Red Devils' exit from the League Cup this season was also due to a defeat against Chelsea—but they did win the controversial Premier League meeting in October.
Two of Rafa Benitez's side's best players, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, have caused United difficulties this term, blitzing the defence with their brand of eye-candy football.
They have combined for 19 goals and 21 assists in the league this season from midfield, and have been far more effective than say, Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young.
Both the Spaniard and Belgian were named in the PFA's Team of the Season, and shortlisted for the Player of the Season award.
Stopping them on Sunday will be difficult, but Sir Alex Ferguson will certainly have his side motivated, despite it effectively being a meaningless game for the title-winners.
Here are the key things the Red Devils must do to keep the duo in check:
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It may seem obvious, but denying Juan Mata and Eden Hazard the ball as much as possible is vital. When they are in possession, United must restrict the space they have to operate in.
Both lead the Blues in key passes per game and total assists for the season (via WhoScored.com).
They are the creative hub for their team—when given room to roam in the final third of the pitch, they can be deadly.
Mata is the more imaginative of the two. If his route to goal is blocked, he has the close control to take the ball elsewhere, always on the lookout for the deadly setup pass.
He has caused Patrice Evra great trouble in the past—at times, the Spaniard has played as a typical winger just to exploit the defensive weaknesses of the United full-back.
In the FA Cup clash in April, he led his team with 75 touches of the ball, and directly assisted Ba's strike.
He was also allowed five shots on goal in that game—an unacceptable statistic from the Red Devils' perspective.
Hazard is similar in some respects to Mata, but also very different.
The Belgian attacking midfielder's greatest strength is running at pace at a defender. He has torn opponents apart with his devastating mix of skill and pace.
He also has the ability to pull up and deliver a quality long-range shot on goal.
When the two sides drew 2-2 in March, Hazard was paired up with Rafael on the left flank. In one instance, he threatened taking him on one-on-one, Rafael took a fatal step back and Hazard capitalised, firing an unstoppable shot into the top corner of David de Gea's net.
Close marking and instant pressure is a must for Sir Alex's men.
I have marked Phil Jones out as arguably the Red Devils' most important player on Sunday. He has the ability to do the job outlined in the previous passage.
In the 1-0 loss, Jones was the standout player for United. He chased and harried, making several key interceptions and doing his best to stop Mata and co.
The former Blackburn man has come along way in 2013, and I would probably put him at the top of a list of the Red Devils' most improved players this year.
Not only does he look more assured protecting the defence, he is increasingly comfortable on the ball and getting involved in attacking matters.
Having him sit behind Mata and tracking the Spaniard across the pitch would be ideal.
Rafael will have to be at his best to stop Hazard, as will the team's central defenders, whoever they may be.
Sir Alex may plump for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the middle, as he will want to avoid the type of mistakes made when Chelsea scored five against his (admittedly second string) team in the League Cup.
The team's wide players, most likely to be Antonio Valencia and Nani, will also have to lend a defensive hand under pressure.
But that's the key word—pressure. Manchester United must exert it, not be the subject of it.
Attack! Attack! Attack?
Is there a better way to control a game than playing a relentless attacking game? It is a seemingly flawless theory.
But it must be an intelligent brand of football. Last month, Sir Alex's side had 56% of possession, but it was the Blues who created the more meaningful chances.
In fact, United dominated most statistical categories—pass completion percentage, aerial success, dribbles—but Rafa Benitez's side still had 20 shots to United's 12 (via WhoScored.com).
There must be a point to the Red Devils' attacks. That's why I like Shinji Kagawa being included in the starting team—to give the team that imagination that Chelsea themselves are able to rely on.
Mata can split an opposition defence open with one pass, United must have the same type of player in their team.
If the side gets bogged down trying to break through the opposition lines, they risk leaving space behind them. Michael Carrick and Phil Jones must not push too far up the pitch.
Mata and Hazard can be deadly on the counter attack, and will gladly exploit gaping holes in the United half.
Kagawa and his attacking midfield cohorts must be both comfortable and creative with the ball. This is vital in keeping the Blues under wraps.
Sir Alex will surely play a strong XI against Chelsea on Sunday, as he did against the Gunners last weekend.
The Scotsman has too much pride to risk losing to the Blues and Rafa Benitez on home turf.
He will do his best to mastermind a convincing win. Stopping Eden Hazard and Juan Mata will be the first thing on his mind during the team's meetings this week.
How do you think this weekend's game will play out? Who will win?
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