What if Manchester United had clicked sooner? That is the question some will be asking as Louis van Gaal's team visit Chelsea in a game that, while important in the context of the title race, could have meant so much more.
The Blues arrive looking to take another significant step toward this season's title, but arguably, it is next term United are already casting glances at.
Having beaten Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City emphatically and impressively in recent weeks, Van Gaal's side have suddenly transitioned from the stunted, predictable team they were for much of the early part of the campaign into a well-organised, expansive attacking side—one the very best teams in the country have been unable to cope with.
Carrying that sort of form into next season, they could even start the campaign as title favourites.
On Saturday evening, they could well beat Chelsea—who, in contrast, have slowed down as the season has gone on—but that would only bring them to within five points of the leaders with five games left.
Even if Arsenal were to repeat the trick and beat Jose Mourinho's men the following weekend, the gap would still be two points. United may be sprinting to the finish, but it looks like the line is going to arrive agonisingly too soon for them to completely overhaul the deficit.
"It's not normal to be top of the league since day one. A team who arrives in August and is top of the league every day until April—that is the team that deserves the credit," Mourinho said on Sunday, as relayed by the Express & Star.
"We have had a good run since day one so nobody should be disappointed because we have been on a good run since August. Now we need 11 more points [to win the title]."
Not that Van Gaal will be too disappointed, considering the recent run has achieved the twin positives of essentially securing United's Champions League spot for next season (the primary aim of the campaign) and winning over those United fans who were still sceptical of his methods.
Few people ever expected a United team to revolve around Marouane Fellaini, yet here we are. The Belgian has become the glue that binds this side together, facilitating others to perform at their best with his tactical discipline, aerial threat and underrated off-the-ball movement.
It is another Belgian who will be the main threat for the Blues on Saturday. United might feel there is no better time to play Chelsea, who have generally looked stagnant—tired, even—in recent weeks and were hugely fortunate to beat lowly Queens Park Rangers last time out.
In that respect, Eden Hazard epitomised his team; far from the vibrant and almost untouchable attacking presence we witnessed at the start of the season, he looked a step off his usual pace and less precise with his touches of the ball.
The Blues have built up enough of an advantage over the rest of the year to cover that slight loss of intensity, but Mourinho would surely prefer to see a championship season capped with wins over the club's nearest rivals rather than defeats.
If anything, they enter the game as slight underdogs, especially considering their attacking issues. Not that we should be lauding United too much, as United legend Paul Scholes pointed out in his column for The Independent on Friday:
Amidst all this revival spirit I should point one thing out. United are putting the results together now with the pressure off, to a large extent. They are too far off in the title race—barring a total collapse from Chelsea—and the only thing to play for is a Champions League place. How many times over the years have we seen Arsenal turn on the form to get their top four spot at the end of the season when they have no chance of winning the title?
It is all well and good being strong in the last three months. The really serious teams are in there from the start and they get stronger before Christmas and then into the run-in. There is a big difference between title form and a late surge for a Champions League place.
Victory for Chelsea would essentially lock up the title. Victory for United would perhaps do little in the long term but could give us a fascinating glimpse of what the dynamic could be next season. We all already sense that United are back—beating the champions elect would probably confirm it.
Week 33 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
- Crystal Palace vs. West Bromwich Albion
- Everton vs. Burnley
- Leicester City vs. Swansea City
- Stoke City vs. Southampton
- Chelsea vs. Manchester United (5:30 p.m.)
FA Cup semi-final: Reading vs. Arsenal (5:20 p.m.)
- Manchester City vs. West Ham United (1:30 p.m.)
- Newcastle United vs. Tottenham (4 p.m.)
FA Cup semi-final: Aston Villa vs. Liverpool
1. What to Watch for This Week
Fixture Farrago Slights FA Cup
Why, in the name of all that is holy, does the first FA Cup semi-final kick off at essentially the same time as one of the biggest matches of the Premier League season? Shouldn't there be a rule in place to stop this sort of thing?
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger believes so, per The Times:
Something should be done about it. I am surprised that they did not analyse that in television deals because basically what happens there, it is something that should have been planned, that two television channels who pay a lot of money for football have conflicted interests in promoting games. That inside the country shouldn’t happen
You would like [the FA Cup] to be the unique competition that is played, especially a semi-final and a final, you would want it not to conflict with other competitions. I am a bit surprised that a [Premier League] game of the same stature is played at the same time. There is a bit of conflict there that is difficult to understand.
As it is, rather than watch Arsenal and Reading battle at Wembley, many fans will switch over to follow events at Stamford Bridge. Sometimes, the FA Cup cannot catch a break.
Pulis Returns to Palace
Not even a year has passed since Tony Pulis departed Crystal Palace following less than a full season in charge in which he nevertheless guided the Eagles to their highest league finish in two decades.
When he left on the eve of the new season, many expected Palace to stumble. They did initially, but since the arrival of Alan Pardew, the team has gone from strength to strength and look poised to trump the achievements of last term.
On Saturday, Pulis will return to Selhurst Park with his new side, West Bromwich Albion, with whom he is trying to produce a similar feat to the one he achieved last year.
Initially, the results were impressive and the Baggies were looking on course to achieve Premier League survival. Recently, however, a few players have taken their eyes off the ball, so Pulis would desperately love a win at his old ground—not just for sentimental reasons but to take his side closer to the magical 40-point mark and further from the relegation scrap.
“It is not a club you walk away from and say: ‘Oh my God, I hope I never go back there,'" Pulis told reporters on Thursday (via the the Guardian). "What really mattered was them staying in the Premier League. It’s a good football club with unbelievable potential. The supporters deserved it. To finish 11th was fantastic and something that everybody at the football club could be proud of.”
Foxes Must Capitalise
The FA Cup means six Premier League teams are not involved in league games on Saturday and Sunday—the three teams in semi-final action, and the three teams they were pencilled in to face this weekend—meaning there is a chance for some sides to gain the psychological advantage of putting some additional points on the board.
That is particularly true of Leicester City—who can leapfrog above QPR and alongside Hull City, both of whom aren't in action—if they can beat Swansea City at home on Saturday. A four-goal winning margin would perhaps be asking a bit much, but that would actually lift the Foxes out of the relegation zone. That would be a huge boost with so few games remaining.
Nigel Pearson's side have rallied brilliantly just when it was beginning to look unsalvageable for them, with a late winner against West Brom last time out giving them renewed and realistic hope.
If Burnley fail to beat Everton at Goodison Park, then Leicester could make the bottom of the table look very different come Saturday evening.
As Pearson said, per Clubcall:
It is important for us now that the players, and everyone else at the club, stay very much focused on now what is a seven-game season.
Yes, there are lots of positives, especially getting six points, but we have still got an awful lot to do, and that is why there is no room for us to take any other stance than that.
I know we have had our critics, but I have been very proud of how the players have coped with the setbacks they have had.
You have to wonder whether they will get a better chance to calibrate the end of their campaign.
2. Video of the Week
3. Player to Watch
Big games are for big players, and Week 33's game is a pretty big one for Chelsea and Hazard. No Diego Costa—and possibly no Loic Remy—means an even greater percentage of the attacking onus falls on the Belgian. Didier Drogba showed against QPR that he is not even a shadow of the striker he once was.
With Hazard nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award, a stirring performance at Stamford Bridge would not help his candidacy, given the votes have already been cast, but it would certainly help boost his pre-eminence among fans. There is little doubt he is the best player on the best team in the league; Saturday presents him with the perfect stage to underline that.
"In my opinion he is the best player in the Premier League at this moment," Hazard's team-mate Oscar told Goal recently. "It's very hard pointing out who's the best here or there, especially here with so many good players. But Hazard has been so consistent and he deserves to be considered as the best player in England."
Hazard was slightly flat against QPR, perhaps starting to feel it in his legs after a long arduous campaign in which he has barely had a minute's rest—he also came into the season on the back of the World Cup so was perhaps not fully refreshed to begin with. The finish line is in sight now, however, and if Hazard can just stir himself for one final push, Chelsea should ease across the line with relative comfort.
4. Game of the Weekend
Manchester City vs. West Ham United
Surely Manuel Pellegrini's side will arrest their slide in this game? They really need to, especially if they want to avoid being dragged further into a battle for a Champions League spot during the final weeks of the season.
At the moment, they have a cushion, albeit a small one, despite recent disappointments. However, another defeat would leave them perilously close to the chasing pack. Finishing fifth would be almost unthinkable for Pellegrini and surely signal the end of his reign at the Etihad Stadium.
At one point this season, it looked like West Ham United might also be competing for the Champions League, but a drop in form since the turn of the year to make even City wince has seen the Hammers plummet toward the bottom half of the table. Sam Allardyce's side have nothing to play for with a chunk of the season to go, but that isn't to say that they won't want to inflict some further pain on City.
It is worth remembering they beat the reigning champions at Upton Park at the start of the season and that last season, in the Capital One Cup semi-finals, City exacted an embarrassing 9-0 aggregate defeat on their London opponents. The Hammers, and Allardyce in particular, might still want further revenge for that chastening experience.
The earlier meeting this season showed that West Ham have the players to damage City—they targeted Eliaquim Mangala to great effect—but the last season's cup meeting should remind us that Pellegrini's side truly have the greater quality. If they lose, perhaps they will ultimately not warrant a top-four finish anyway.