David Moyes must surely have scaled down his initial ambitions for the season but travels to London with his side four points off of a Champions League place and with five wins from six games.
Whilst the title may be a stretch too far, United could strengthen their assault on the top four with a win. Squawka takes a look at three areas in which Sunday’s game could be won.
Willian vs. Alexander Buttner
Despite Mourinho’s repeated assertions that Chelsea are not going to win the Premier League title, the Blues have quietly ramped up the pressure on league leaders Arsenal over the past few weeks with a run of five wins from their last six Premier League games.
One of the standout performers of that run has been Willian, who is finally starting to look like a player befitting of his hefty price tag. The Brazilian has started four of Chelsea’s last six matches and has firmly cemented his place ahead of Juan Mata in the Blues' pecking order.
At the time of Chelsea’s last league loss—a 3-2 defeat away at Stoke City on December 7—Willian had started just three Premier League games. He had featured as a substitute on a further three occasions, but the opening four months of the season had seen him create just seven chances and feature in just 40 percent of the side’s league fixtures.
However, in the period since that loss, he has featured in every game, with four starts and two substitute appearances in Chelsea’s last six league games. Clearly benefiting from a run of games, he has been the side’s second most creative player, behind Eden Hazard, during the period.
In the six games since Chelsea last lost, Willian has created 10 chances, four ahead of both Mata and Oscar and double the number provided by his compatriot Ramires.
The archetypal Mourinho midfielder, Willian is likely to be preferred to the somewhat-ostracised Mata due to his defensive capabilities as much as his attacking traits. Over the last six games, he has made 14 tackles at a success rate of 78 percent.
With United’s midfield giving them a vulnerable soft centre, Moyes’ side have been reliant upon balls into the box to create their goalscoring chances. They have put more crosses in than any other Premier League side this season, with Patrice Evra their second most creative player behind Wayne Rooney.
Evra has created more chances this season (23) than Tom Cleverley (7), Ashley Young (9), Shinji Kagawa (5) and Maroune Fellaini (1) combined.
An injury to Evra means that he is unlikely to feature, but United’s style of play won’t change. Both Alex Buttner and Rafael are more comfortable when attacking than defending, and Willian is likely to be needed to stop such threat from wide.
Fortunately for Chelsea, he is comfortable in such a role. In the side’s win over Liverpool over the festive period, Mourinho switched him to the left of midfield in order to do a defensive job on Glen Johnson–a tactic that he could use again in order to stop Rafael.
He made four tackles over the course of that game, successfully shackling the England man, and can stop a large source of United’s threat if he can reproduce that display on Sunday.
Adnan Januzaj vs. Cesar Azpilicueta
As a sign of how far United have slipped, the bulk of their creative hopes from midfield have been pinned upon Adnan Januzaj in recent weeks.
The 18-year-old is undoubtedly talented but would be forgiven for buckling under such pressure. However, he has shown no signs of doing so and has been the side’s best player during the recent absence of Wayne Rooney.
Over the season, he has successfully gone past his man on 29 occasions. This take-on success represents a completion rate of 55 percent for the youngster, whose quick feet have frequently provided some rare creative spark for United.
His ability on the ball has also seen him regularly upended by opponents. Januzaj has been fouled 42 times this season and, with a tight game expected on Sunday, could provide United with either the moment of magic or the set piece required to breach the Chelsea defence.
Cesar Azpilicueta will be the man tasked by Mourinho with dealing with the youngster, should Januzaj revert to the left midfield brief that he undertook for the second half of United’s win over Swansea last time out. The Spaniard has a tackle success rate of 63 percent this season and has averaged seven defensive actions per game.
He will have to be wary of Januzaj’s wandering from the wing, as well as his ability on the ball. The chance-creation map above shows the areas on the pitch that Januzaj has created his chances from this season, with a large number coming from central areas. This means that Azpilicueta must stay alert and that communication with his defensive midfield players will be imperative.
A battle that was a feature of fixtures involving Liverpool and Manchester United in years gone by, Chelsea will be hoping that Fernando Torres can roll back the years and add another chapter to his ongoing feud with Vidic.
Torres has opened 2014 with goals in back-to-back away fixtures against Southampton and Hull. His Chelsea career has had far too many false dawns for fans to get their hopes up over a couple of goals, but Blues fans will be encouraged by the fact that he has two goals in two games in 2014.
Despite this, the style of Chelsea’s play means that Vidic is not likely to endure the sleepless nights that he may once have had at the thought of playing against Torres. Whilst the Spaniard used to break at pace and isolate him in one-on-one situations when playing for Liverpool, he has more all-round responsibilities as the lone frontman for Chelsea.
The Chelsea Torres is required to hold up the ball and play with his back to goal. This suits Vidic, who has won 71 percent of his headed duels and 64 percent of his attempted tackles this season, as it doesn’t expose his lack of pace and prevents Torres from running at him.
However, if Torres can find space in the box, then he will fancy his chances given his current run of form. He will be looking to have a similar impact to the goalscoring performance that he produced earlier in the season when the blue half of Manchester visited Stamford Bridge.