The Chosen One vs The Special One: Round Two
David Moyes’ Manchester United face a stern test at Stamford Bridge. Whilst the 2-0 victory and excellent second-half performance against Swansea may have lowered the heat under the Moyes pressure cooker, Jose Mourinho’s side—still unbeaten under him at the Bridge—provide an altogether more challenging prospect.
There has been no rotation of goalkeepers under Moyes and David de Gea has been one of the few United players to perform at a consistent level all season, so barring any injury, his inclusion is a definite.
Rafael da Silva is fit again and offers much more to United than any other right-back option available to Moyes—defensively, he has worked hard to cut out the mistakes which plagued his game as a younger player and he adds a great deal of impetus to United’s right flank going forward.
According to the Mirror's David Anderson, Nemanja Vidic’s next contract may be a matter of some uncertainty, but his inclusion at the heart of United’s defense is probably not. The choice of his partner is much less certain.
Jonny Evans was arguably United’s best centre-half last season—very arguably, as the comments on this article will no doubt show!—but he is one of those whose performances appear to have dropped under Moyes. Individual lapses in concentration have cost United dearly on occasion.
However, the same can be said of Chris Smalling and he lacks the refinement in possession that Evans has.
Few United fans would clamour for the inclusion of Rio Ferdinand. One of the classiest central defenders to have graced Old Trafford in the past few decades, Rio’s performances this season would indicate his time as a Manchester United regular may have passed.
The left-back slot will go to Patrice Evra. For all his faults in defense, he is a vital part of United’s attacking unit down the left and head and shoulders above any of his competitors for the role.
The question of how Moyes will approach the midfield is much more open to variation. United’s best performances this season (Leverkusen away, West Ham at home, the second half of the Swansea game) have all seen United move away from a flat 4-4-2.
However, against a side that certainly warrant respect—whilst not performing to their best, Chelsea are still performing much better than United—will Moyes’ history of tactical conservatism against “big” teams mean that solidifying midfield will be prioritised?
Even if it is, it is far from clear that United have the personnel to accomplish that aim.
Michael Carrick has vociferous admirers and dedicated, relentless critics, but one area they probably agree on is that United’s midfield lacks combative bite with him at its heart.
Darren Fletcher provided much of the impetus that allowed Shinji Kagawa and particularly Adnan Januzaj to shine in the second half against Swansea, but will his recovery from such a serious health condition allow him to be as effective against Chelsea?
Tom Cleverley’s performances this season have generally been far from great, but by the time he played his third game in a week in the semi-final of the Capital One Cup against Sunderland, he looked exhausted and gave a very poor account of himself. Perhaps a few games rest will see an improvement from the United academy product, who is struggling to impose himself on games and win over fans.
Moyes may well chose to start with all three in order to crowd out Chelsea's many attacking options from midfield, although this will risk leaving United's forwards badly isolated. If Phil Jones were fit, he would probably warrant a place in the side.
On the flanks, Antonio Valencia will probably start. Like many of his colleagues, his form this season has been patchy, but he does have a history of playing well against Ashley Cole. Barring major tactical innovation from Moyes, his power and pace will warrant his inclusion.
Janujaz, absolutely outstanding in the second half against Swansea last week and United’s brightest spark this season, will probably get the nod on the left.
Danny Welbeck has been in excellent goalscoring form whilst covering for the injured Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, and will play up front. Of course, players of Rooney and Van Persie’s quality will always be missed, but Welbeck has taken huge advantage of his time leading the line, with six goals in six games.
Welbeck has his detractors, but he is a cult hero amongst some United fans.
Questions remain about form, fitness and tactic, which make predictions a challenge. Will Moyes risk playing Kagawa in the hole? Will Javier Hernandez’s phenomenal goalscoring record against Chelsea earn him a place in the side? Moyes has big decisions to make.
My prediction (with thanks to Stretford-End.com writer Sleepy Nik for the sounding board!):
De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Smalling (Evans if fit), Evra
Carrick, Cleverley Fletcher
Feel free to make fun of me when the team is announced.