Manchester United vs Chelsea: A Pre-Match Analysis
October 1977: Andre Villas-Boas was born, five months after Sir Alex Ferguson won his first trophy.
Fast forward almost two and a half decades. The wily Scot has earned himself a place among the legends of the game, and Villas-Boas is at the the start of what looks to be a promising career as manager of Chelsea.
The two face off in a mouthwatering battle of wits and tactics come Sunday and, even though this Premier League season is in its infancy, it is already taking on the appearance of a game that Villas-Boas and his team from London cannot afford to lose.
United have made a spectacular start to the season, much like Chelsea last season, while Andre Villas-Boas has made a steady start at Stamford Bridge. Defeat on Sunday would leave the Londoners five points adrift of United, and quite possibly City if they win at Fulham. It is not an insurmountable gap, but Villas-Boas wouldn't want a gap like that opening up at the top, even if it is only after five games.
Chelsea look to be the most likely challenger to the title outside of Manchester, and that is why this game at Old Trafford will mean a lot to them.
Villas-Boas has accepted that his side will face a "different kind of challenge altogether" compared to the one offered by Bayer Leverkusen, and with one eye on the United game, he rested captain John Terry completely and Frank Lampard started on the bench.
There are question marks over United goalkeeper David de Gea, which will not go away until he strings a run of clean sheets together or saves United in a game. Chelsea will look to put him under pressure as quickly as possible by testing him out with shots and getting the ball in and around his head.
United's midfield has looked really good so far, with Anderson and Cleverley developing an almost telepathic understanding when taking up attacking or defensive positions. It will be interesting to see who replaces Cleverley, with Giggs, Carrick and Fletcher all getting a run out on Wednesday.
United's defense has a makeshift look about it, but they have coped admirably so far. Cardozo caused the United defense a number of problems on Wednesday, and if Drogba recovers in time, the strong striker will look forward to giving them a similar hard time.
In no way is it a foregone conclusion United will win this game because Chelsea have too many good players.
Villas-Boas has freshened Chelsea up by bringing in younger legs and a bit more pace. Juan Mata looks to be a very good player and Daniel Sturridge gives them an extra dimension with his quick feet and eye for goal. There is still the problem of Fernando Torres getting back to his best, but Villas-Boas still has plenty of quality to work with.
Having said that, United have looked brilliant so far in the Premier League. New signings Ashley Young and Phil Jones have settled in instantly, while the catalyst is the same person it has been for years: Wayne Rooney.
It's not just because of his ability, but his attitude. His work rate is phenomenal and he has more guts than almost everyone else put together.
To prove my point, one might recall United's 3-1 defeat at Liverpool last season. Rooney was having a nightmare but he was trying as hard in the 91st minute as in the first—even with the game lost. You have to have huge admiration for that.
It lifts teammates when they see their best player trying like that and sets an example. Supporters and colleagues will say to themselves, "Well if he's our best player and he is doing that, then I should be as well."
It creates solidarity among a team and gives it a sense of presence and self-belief plus a feeling that everyone is in it together. That is is the importance of Rooney to Manchester United, apart from his wonderful natural ability.
"We face United perhaps in their most tremendous moment of motivation and flair and style," stated Villas-Boas. "A team that has made its impact at the beginning of the Premier League is different from last year, but I think it provokes in us a good challenge. Motivation will be the key factor in the game, and the capacity of people to transcend themselves and take the game through and come back from Old Trafford with a win."
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